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FEMA's Fight Against Disinformation, From National Lockdown Rumors To Stockpiling

A pedestrian carries two packages of toilet paper as she walks along Market Street in San Francisco earlier this month.
Justin Sullivan Getty Images
A pedestrian carries two packages of toilet paper as she walks along Market Street in San Francisco earlier this month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to knock down a series of rumors and falsehoods that have been spreading along with the coronavirus pandemic.

It launched a page on its website called Coronavirus Rumor Control to fight the misinformation, as officials work to assure the public there is, in fact, no "national quarantine," nor has FEMA has deployed "military assets."

"No, FEMA does not have military assets," the site notes.


Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News on Saturday that "we have no plans for a national lockdown or a national quarantine," calling that disinformation.

Wolf also tweeted: "Do not believe the disinformation campaigns. Please do not pass it along. Use trusted local and federal government sources."

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, "About half the public (48%) say they've been exposed to at least some made-up news and information related to the virus."

First casualty of war

In a sense, it's not surprising that bad information spreads during a crisis, says Gary Webb, chair of the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science at the University of North Texas.


"People are just seeking out information, where we're kind of searching for answers and trying to kind of muddle our way through all of this ambiguity and and uncertainty," Webb tells NPR. "And I think in any time we face a situation like that, there's there's going to be kind of an explosion in information. And not all of that is going to be credible and an accurate information."

Part of the blame for the ease with which rumors and bad information spreads is due to social media, Webb says.

"So many people rely on it to communicate with friends and family members. And it's for many people a primary source of information," he says. "But at the same time, we know that that social media can also be bombarded with inaccurate information."

Swimming with the sharks

Some of the misinformation that spreads in times of crisis is less than harmful.

There were rumors claiming sharks were swimming in the streets during Hurricane Florence — perhaps the inspiration for recent false claims that dolphins were spotted frolicking in the canals of Venice because the water was now clean due to a coronavirus-related lack of boat traffic.

It's not clear where much of this material originates, although Trump administration officials have blamed foreign governments.

"What we know — whether it's Russia, or whether it's other cyber actors... [is] they like to sow discord on any controversial issue," Wolf said on another Fox show. "So, it doesn't just have to be elections. It can be any issue. And we're seeing that now with the coronavirus."

Trump himself was angered that a spokesman for China's foreign ministry falsely alleged that the U.S. Army had introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan, its original epicenter in China.

Webb isn't convinced much of misinformation that spreads in crises has sinister origins, saying much of it "stems from some inconsistent messaging that's coming about coming out about the virus. And and I think that inconsistency is is really happening at at all levels."

FEMA, he says, is "trying to reduce some of those inconsistencies and also reduce some of the confusion and ambiguity" with it's website.

Hucksters and flimflam

A related problem: in a crisis there are always those who try to illegally cash in.

Another myth that FEMA is rebuking holds that that the government is currently mailing out $1,000 checks to Americans. Although members of Congress are debating relief legislation, the particulars aren't yet final.

FEMA says "The U.S. government is not mailing checks in response to COVID-19 at this time. Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer."

Attorney General William Barr vowed at the White House on Monday that the Justice Department would crack down on coronavirus scammers.

That followed action by the department to shut down a website that was offering what it called a vaccine kit — a fraud. Although early clinical tests are underway, today there is no vaccine.

The Justice Department alleged that the operators of the website were running a wire fraud scheme to profit off of the fear around the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal judge in Texas has granted the department's request for the website to be temporarily blocked as the case proceeds.

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