The new coronavirus is not the only contagion spreading in the Crossroads.

Public health officials are also battling an epidemic of misinformation and the panic they say it can cause.

Controlling rumors and panic is just as important as getting out the correct information, said Cyndi Smith, emergency management coordinator for DeWitt County, adding, “That’s 50% of what I’m working on.”

Misinformation, whether it is rumors, scams or hoaxes, is not only fed by fear but also the result of it, officials and experts said.

“The more that people share (rumors and misinformation) the more frenzy and fear within the community it’s going to cause,” said Ashley Strevel, spokeswoman for the city of Victoria, adding, “It adds more fuel to the fire.”

“There is a tendency for individuals to share false information (during the new coronavirus pandemic) mainly because there is uncertainty,” said Creshema Murray, an associate professor of corporate communications at University of Houston-Downtown who studies destructive communication methods.

The resulting fear caused by the false information can have tangible effects on real life.

Bare grocery shelves may be an inconvenience for many, but the panic-buying shortages are much more serious for the elderly, emergency responders, physicians and nurses as well as others who must work long, unusual hours during the pandemic, Smith said.

“Our police officers can’t stop at 2 p.m. when the truck comes in and go to H-E-B and get their groceries,” she said.

That fear and false information is increasing with the spread of the new coronavirus, Smith and Murray said.

While rumors may seem harmless to some, they can have a tangible effect on real life.

“Food supplies are not running out other than what the public is causing in the stores,” Smith said. “There are empty shelves where there don’t need to be.”

Other rumors may have less of a damaging effect but may still cause confusion.

Since the virus began spreading, residents have repeatedly asked the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office whether it’s true that law enforcement have stopped jailing arrested people.

That rumor is wholly false, and jail officials also have no plans to release inmates because of the virus, said sheriff’s office Chief Deputy Roy Boyd.

Whatever their effect may be, rumors and false information have a tendency to spread – and evolve – readily within a community.

Some people may mishear a rumor and pass it on as fact. Like a game of telephone, the rumor may evolve through retellings until it hardly resembles the initial information or question from which it began.

“There are individuals out there mishearing information, misinterpreting it from their point of view and sharing their interpretation,” Murray said.

Often, an element of truth exists in the otherwise false claims, making them more believable.

And in the age of digital communication, social media has allowed those false claims to be spread rapidly and to large audiences.

One widely shared anecdote, Murray said, described a social media user’s relative who was supposedly employed at the Pentagon. According to that relative, residents should be prepared for martial law in the near future.

While Murray said she thinks most users do not share false rumors on purpose, they do nevertheless get passed on.

“Many times people are looking to be the first to share,” Murray said, adding, “You want to be the person who has the information and is in control … In the moment, you get the glory.”

Even more troubling are scams taking advantage of the crisis to steal money from worried people.

The Better Business Bureau has identified several such scams, including some where fraudsters posed as legitimate face-mask companies to steal money or personal information.

Such scams often come when people are at their most vulnerable, said Katie Galan, spokeswoman for the bureau.

“Scammers realize this and use it as an opportunity to prey on individuals and what their needs may be at that moment,” Galan said. “Right now, with COVID-19, many people have been in search of surgical or face masks to help protect themselves against the virus.”

Determining whether information is true or false is not always easy, but there are a few measures that can be taken to check its credibility, officials and experts said.

When information does not include attribution to a credible source, residents should be skeptical and hold off on sharing it, Murray said.

Often, she said, a cursory examination of a piece of information and its sources can show it to be less than credible.

Residents should always seek information from credible sources like the CDC, Texas Department of State Health Services, local health and emergency departments and other official offices, Smith said.

For communication and public information officials, like Strevel and Smith, fighting the spread of false information is an essential element of her job.

“Those are things we don’t want to continue, and that’s why we are relaying all this information,” she said.

Social media, despite its tendencies for spreading false information, is an effective tool in that battle, Strevel said.

She said Victoria, Victoria County and its public health department coordinate the dissemination of correct information through regular social media posts, most notably Facebook.

On the Facebook page for the DeWitt County Office of Emergency Management, Smith demonstrated the power of social media in false rumors with a post.

According to that post, one false message shared on Crossroads social media feeds stated: “Tonight at 11:40 pm nobody should be on the street. Doors and windows should remain closed as 5 helicopters spray disinfectants into the air to eradicate the coronavirus. Please process this information to all of your contacts.”

Days later, the office published a Facebook post warning of websites falsely reporting the number of people confirmed to have the new coronavirus.

The false information prompted DeWitt County emergency management officials to issue a social media post denouncing the claims.

“STAY CALM AND WASH YOUR HANDS,” concluded that post from emergency management officials.

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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