Rumor Control is Critical and Time-Consuming for States

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Rumor Control is Critical and Time-Consuming for States
Stateline Apr24
Among the false rumors on social media is that the National Guard will enforce stay-at-home orders at gunpoint. That’s not true. Here, members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard fill emergency food boxes in Oklahoma City. Elsewhere, National Guard troops have helped with drive-thru testing sites, delivered equipment to nursing homes and answered calls for state unemployment offices.
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In addition to battling the coronavirus, states and localities are spending time and increased effort batting down rumors and myths — everything from President Donald Trump’s suggestion yesterday that injecting poisonous disinfectants might help to rumors that National Guard troops are enforcing stay-at-home orders at gunpoint.

Do 5G cell towers spread the virus? Nope. Can cats give you COVID-19? Unlikely, though some felines have it. Are police in Salisbury, North Carolina, conducting random checkpoints to test for coronavirus? No, again.

These and other rumors are landing on state and local rumor control websites, which officials have ramped up during the pandemic. Police, health officials and emergency management teams are spending valuable time fending off the falsehoods that have neighborhoods in a tizzy and gun sales on the rise.

But debunking the rumors is absolutely essential for state and local governments, said Bob Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York Albany. Untruths, he said, undermine critical information from official governments at a time when people need to be listening to experts and following instructions.

“The problem isn’t the boy who cried wolf, it’s the president who is crying wolf,” Griffin said. “The governors’ experts are spending their precious time debunking the fact that the wolf doesn’t exist. The problem is when the wolf does exist, nobody’s going to believe it.”

Many cities and states had rumor control sites and hotlines before the pandemic. Now they have converted them into landing pages for COVID-19 information or are using them to connect residents to facts about the virus.

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In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, officials are pleading with residents not to inflame the rumor mill.

“Rumors and misinformation can be destructive and can even cause harmful behaviors that increase personal and public health risks,” officials said on the county’s website. “While we cannot realistically respond to every rumor, this page is dedicated to addressing rumors about COVID-19 and related information that can be damaging to our efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus in our community.”

The rumor page was set up in response to the virus, said Communications Director Amie Downs. The county is partnering with other agencies, such as the state police, to corral the urban legends.

Once in charge of communications for the entire county government, Downs said her “entire job” these days is both responding to individual questions about virus rumors and pushing out information to the media in an effort to quash myths before they run wild.

Downs said she is working 12-hour days dealing with the rumors. Sometimes that means answering emails from individual residents, such as the one asking whether the county was going to open all its public pools the next day (the answer was no). And she spends some of her time in broader conversations with the health department about widespread myths such as “all Social Security checks are going to be stopped.”

When people tout unproven coronavirus cures or medications, such as when Trump suggested that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine might be effective against the virus, “it is not at all helpful,” Downs said. On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that the drugs can cause dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities in coronavirus patients.

At his news conference on Thursday, Trump suggested that household disinfectants that “knock it (COVID-19) out in a minute,” might be used “by injection inside or almost a cleaning. It would be interesting to check that. It sounds interesting to me.”

"The problem is when the wolf does exist, nobody’s going to believe it."

Bob Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity State University of New York Albany

His statements prompted the makers of Lysol and other disinfectants to release urgent statements that their products were not meant to be ingested.

“As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” Lysol’s parent company Reckitt Benckiser said.

At New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily news conference on Friday, New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker reminded people that cleaning and disinfecting solutions are “things you would not ingest, and, as you know, we make sure our kids do not go into cabinets that have any of these chemicals in them, so you need to stay away from those products.”

The White House issued a statement trying to clean up Trump’s remarks and blaming the media for distributing them, but rumor control officials worry the damage could already be done.

Other states also are spending valuable time batting down rumors. The top item on Maryland’s rumor control site debunks the idea that martial law has been declared. (Questioners saw National Guard troops in Baltimore.) A similar rumor was spreading in Ohio — also not true.

New Jersey’s site debunks the idea that ibuprofen can exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms and strengthen the virus. And the site for Fairfax County, Virginia, advises residents that they are highly unlikely to get COVID-19 from mail or packages, and that there is no truth to rumors that certain races and ethnicities are immune to the virus.

Many states have been advising residents with questions about something they heard to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has set up its own rumor control webpage.

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State Action on Coronavirus

Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.