Over the weekend, a strange text message began to circulate around America. It warned recipients of an impending quarantine order and claimed the President of the United States would invoke martial law to control the spread of the COVID-19.
As scary as this sounds, the message was just vague enough to be believable. And with the virus already in pandemic status across the world, countries like Italy have taken similar measures to flatten the curve of infection. Tap or click here to see if the coronavirus is near you.
But as it turns out, that mass text message was nothing more than a viral hoax. As the outbreak continues, you can expect to see even more disinformation like this heading your way. Here’s how this prank unfolded and what businesses are doing to stop the phonies.
Martial law: Is it really coming to America?
That weird text people across the country received cites an arcane law called the Stafford Act, which the text alleges was activated to enable mandatory quarantines.
Under martial law, the military will be patrolling cities to enforce stay-at-home orders. To prepare, the text alleges recipients should stock up on up to two weeks’ worth of food (and toilet paper, no doubt).
Kim was forwarded a similar message from a friend who had received the original text. But as Kim points out, this announcement is nothing more than a big, fat hoax. The President’s National Security Council even chimed in on the matter, and exposed the prank on social media.
So what actually happened? Clearly, there must have been some intention behind such a massive text message campaign. Besides, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen disinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Tap or click to see the coronavirus myths that refuse to die.
Federal authorities are currently unable to trace the origins of the viral text message, but they’re confirming its contents are false. Theories on the message run the gamut from viral meme gone wrong all the way up to intentional disinformation from a foreign government.
But one thing remains certain: The individual contents of the entire text are fake. The Stafford Act was actually activated when President Trump declared a national emergency. All it does is give states easier access to resources during a disaster. There is no provision for mandatory quarantine.
As for the “two week” timeframe, this is one area of the text that’s a bit more optimistic than the reality. President Trump declared there’s potential to remain sheltered indoors until July or even August. But during this time, essential services like markets and pharmacies will remain open.
As for whether the military gets involved, there’s no way to tell one way or another. In the quarantined town of New Rochelle, New York, the National Guard has already been deployed to assist citizens who are sheltering in-place, as well as enforce curfews.
Whether this expands to a national level remains to be seen. On a positive note, the President did express his hopes that there won’t be a need for aggressive containment.
Fighting disinformation: A responsibility for our data-brokers
This text message was clearly dangerous and irresponsible, and may have spurred some panic-buying among recipients who had been urged to “prepare for two weeks.” Tap or click to see how panic-buying is affecting online and brick-and-mortar stores alike.
This kind of fearmongering can lead to practices like hoarding, which can prevent vulnerable people from getting the food and supplies they need.
But not all is lost. Disinformation campaigns like this text message may be on the decline if the tech industry has anything to say about it.
In an unprecedented joint press release, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube all pledged to do their part in fighting disinformation on their respective platforms.
The companies outlined their responsibility to present accurate information to users and declared verified, authoritative news sources would be elevated to drown out the fake news and spam that’s been tricking people.
This is one of the boldest moves on this subject by the tech industry, and it’s honestly a shame it had to come to a global disaster for this action to be taken. Hopefully, this kind of policy rings true going forward, even after the coronavirus is long gone; otherwise, we may be forced to confront fake news every day.