Aysha Qamar Daily Kos Staff
Despite warnings that those spreading misinformation will face the consequences, COVID-19 misinformation has been rampant since the start of the pandemic. From “miracle” cures like drinking bleach, taking ivermectin, and gargling Betadine, anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 deniers have spread a variety of hoaxes, including advising some not to go to the hospital. But one hoax has received more attention than the others—and not just by those susceptible to believing it.
A Texas man is heading to prison for a hoax he spread on social media in which he claimed he paid someone infected with COVID-19 to lick food items at multiple grocery stores. According to a news release issued by the Justice Department, 40-year-old Christopher Perez posted two “threatening messages” on Facebook at the beginning of the pandemic last year to “scare people away from visiting the stores.” On Monday, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for two counts of false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons.
“Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax,” Christopher Combs, an FBI special agent, said. “Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime,” Combs continued. “The FBI would like to thank our law enforcement partners for their help in this case.”
NBC News reported that allegations ensued after the FBI received a screenshot of Perez’s first post dated April 5, 2020, from the Southwest Texas Fusion Center. The post read:
My homeboys [sic] cousin has covid19 and has licked every thing for past 2 days cause we paid him too [sic]. Big difference is we told him not to be these f—— idiots who record and post online. . . YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!!
While the investigation found that the claims were a hoax and that Perez did not pay anyone, the notion of his claim was dangerous. “Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter,” U.S. Attorney Ashley Hoff said in a statement. “This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
The investigation was conducted by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with Weapons of Mass Destruction personnel. During investigations, Perez even admitted to FBI agents that the claims were false. According to court documents, he told investigators he wrote it because too many people were out and he “was trying to scare people from the stores in order to stop them from spreading the virus to keep people safe.” He claimed he did not know anyone who had the virus.
When asked if he was happy that a local store was shut down due to his rumors, Perez told investigators he was split “50/50.”
Rumors and hoaxes like this are not uncommon on social media platforms but Perez’s rumor is believable as multiple people have been arrested throughout the course of the pandemic for licking grocery store items. In March 2020, when the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the U.S., a Missouri man was charged with licking items at Walmart to mock COVID-19 fears.
While social media platforms have confirmed they are working to remove false posts about COVID-19 and its vaccine, social media has been a gold mine for misinformation. According to CBS News, Facebook has deleted over 20 million posts containing vaccine misinformation, and shut down the accounts of 3,000 repeat COVID-19 misinformation offenders.
Officials nationwide are cracking down on misinformation in efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and keep numbers of infections from going up. Charging those who are spreading this misinformation is a step in the right direction, we can only hope others learn from this example and stop creating new conspiracy theories and rumors that put lives in danger.