Dozens of US police departments spread coronavirus misinformation

Some US police departments have spread misinformation about the coronavirus on Facebook, claiming that COVID-19 is linked to methamphetamine in an attempt to get people to turn their illegal substances in to law enforcement, the Washington Post reported.

“WARNING: If you have recently purchased Meth, it may be contaminated with the Corona Virus,” the Merill, Wisconsin, Police Department shared in a Facebook post on February 26. “Please take it to the Merrill Police Department and we will test it for free. If you’re not comfortable going into an office setting, please request any officer and they’ll test your Meth in the privacy of your home. Please spread the word! We are here for you!”

The next day, the Merill Police Department updated its post after almost instantly drawing the attention and criticism from individuals who either believed the post was legitimate or those who thought the department should not be joking about the virus.

“While other departments are creating substance use outreach programs, you’re doing this. Substance use disorder is a public health crisis. Making a mockery of it is putting you further away from a solution. This is disgusting,” one person commented on the Facebook post.

“We are a Law Enforcement Agency, not a recovery service,” the department responded. “We address crime and the criminals who perpetrate it anywhere we can in our City and any way we lawfully can.”

“We have actually experienced people report their illegal drugs being stolen, being ripped off in a drug deal, being sold a look-a-like illegal substance, etc. We have even experienced drunk drivers coming to pick up arrested drunk drivers as their “sober responsible party,” Merrill Police said on Facebook on Thursday. “So this attempt, although a long shot, still had some possibility behind it. We will take those easy grabs at removing poison[sic] from our community whenever we can. That is our role which we un-apologetically must fulfill.”

To date, COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has killed more than 2,900 people and infected more than 85,000 others. While the disease had been primarily contained to China, the virus has spread to other parts of Asia and around the globe, including Italy and the US. At least 76 people have died outside of mainland China.

The misinformation was not limited to just police departments. In addition to two dozen US police departments, one candidate for a local sheriff’s office, and 10 local journalists and radio stations also shared the inaccurate information on their Facebook pages, according to a BuzzFeed News report.

Social media websites, like Facebook, have faced questions over how they plan to handle coronavirus misinformation on their platforms. Earlier this week, the Menlo, Park, California-based company announced it would ban misleading advertisements that mentioned coronavirus.

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