Two dozen police departments, 10 journalists and radio stations, one Army substance abuse program, and a candidate for local sheriff have spread a claim on Facebook about meth possibly being contaminated with the novel coronavirus.
Some spread the false claim in an attempt at humor or to trick people into turning in their drugs, while others appear to have believed it was real.
“P.S.A WARNING: If you have recently purchased Meth, it may be contaminated with the Corona Virus. Please take it to the Merrill Police Department and we will test it for free,” said the most popular post from the Merrill Police Department in Wisconsin, which has been shared over 6,500 times and further spread through screenshots.
The police department later updated the post, saying it was made in an attempt to trick people into bringing their meth to the station. The department said that “this attempt, although a long shot, still had some possibility behind it.”
“We have no comment,” Corey Bennett, chief of the Merrill Police Department, told BuzzFeed News in an email in response to questions about why the department spread false information about the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, during a critical time.
The Washington Post reported that some police department Facebook pages have spread straightforward news headlines, like “Texas Police Say Local Meth Is Contaminated With Coronavirus, Offer to Test It.”
COVID-19 has killed over 2,800 people so far, the vast majority in China’s Hubei province, and has spread to 48 countries. Online misinformation has been a big concern, prompting the World Health Organization to call it an “infodemic” and advise caution when sharing news online.
“Giving mythological information and being tongue-in-cheek about something that's really serious, where there's been a lot of loss and a lot of deaths seems just problematic coming from a state agency,” former CDC epidemiologist Jon Zibbell of RTI International told BuzzFeed News. “There's absolutely no evidence for this.”
Police departments aren’t the only reputable organizations spreading the false claim. Local news anchors and radio stations also shared versions of the post to their audiences.
“If you read the Merrill Police Department’s original and now updated post, I think it’s pretty clear it was a humorous attempt by them to reach people who illegally produce meth by telling them it COULD be contaminated with COVID-19,” said Kevin Doran, the anchor for Minnesota's KSTP-TV, who’s verified on Facebook and shared the post. “I have found that law enforcement agencies often use humor in social media posts to make serious points.”
This isn’t the first time police departments have joked about drugs being contaminated with a virus. They did it during the Zika virus outbreak in 2018 and in 2016 one person actually got arrested after bringing their drugs in to be tested for Ebola.
“There is a pattern of law enforcement making claims around specific drugs and their outcomes that have proven not to be true,” Zibbell said. “And that is concerning for public health efforts because we want to get information out there that people can trust, can use."