Coronavirus: COVID-19 social media theories debunked

As New Zealand is plunged back up the alert levels following five new confirmed cases of community transmission, conspiracy theories and wild COVID-19 claims are running rampant on social media. 

While the majority of these theories have tell-tale signs of inaccuracy - grammar being one of them - uncertainty is a known breeding ground for misinformation. Pot-stirrers love panic, and scaremongering thrives on fear. Social media theories can be easy to lean into when people are desperate for answers.

There are currently a number of theories making the rounds on social media - some trivial, some a little more sinister. 

Newshub has broken down two of the more common claims floating about on Facebook.

'We're going into level 4' - Nic's dad's girlfriend

One screengrab floating around Facebook is of a text exchange claiming the whole country is moving into alert level 4. Why? Because Nic's dad's girlfriend has been flown to the Beehive as part of the "DHB group" and happened to stumble across the information.

It claims that New Zealand is moving into a nationwide, alert level 4 lockdown on Monday because two more people - elderly rest home patients in Hamilton and Christchurch - tested positive for the virus. This claim is based on information apparently passed from inside the Beehive to Nic's dad's girlfriend to Nic's dad. The Government has not yet announced the impending lockdown as they didn't want New Zealanders to "panic".

Coronavirus: COVID-19 social media theories debunked
Photo credit: Facebook

What we know

The Ministry of Health has confirmed that four individuals from a single south Auckland household tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. A student at Auckland's Mt Albert Grammar School also returned a positive result on Thursday morning, and is considered a close contact of one of the four initial cases. Four probable cases were reported in the community on Wednesday. At present, there is no record of two elderly rest home patients in Hamilton and Christchurch returning a positive test for the virus.

On Tuesday, a care unit at a Christchurch retirement village was placed under lockdown after several residents began displaying symptoms of a respiratory illness. 

The Village Palms Retirement Village in Shirley advised family members of its residents in a letter on Tuesday.

"We currently have several residents on our [first] floor care unit who are displaying symptoms of a respiratory illness," the letter said. "We have forwarded swabs to the Public Health Department to test for COVID-19."

The Canterbury District Health Board later said that all of the tests to date - taken at both the Village Palms and another Christchurch rest home that went into lockdown, the Brookhaven Retirement Village - have returned negative results.

The common sense approach

Auckland is already in a three-day alert level 3 lockdown. The rest of the country is already observing alert level 2 protocol. The idea that the Government would hold off on announcing crucial public health information - a planned transition to alert level 4 - simply not to spark "a panic", does seem a little illogical. 

Alert level 4 is not unknown, uncharted territory - we've done it before, and if necessary, we'll do it again. 

'Please don't say I said it, but the NZDF are taking over New Zealand' 

If the majority of viral social media theories weren't dubious enough, nothing screams, 'warning: don't trust me' more than a theorist who urges their own theory to become a game of Chinese Whispers. 

One theorist, who claimed the New Zealand Defence Force is taking over the nation's hospitals, quarantine bases and airports, has told his followers to "feel free to let any and everyone know", but "please don't say I said and re-word for yourself" - actively encouraging the spread of misinformation.

The post, which is making the rounds on Facebook, claims the NZDF and the Government met to "put into place a full lockdown by October", which includes Defence Force personnel "taking over" under martial law as of October 1.

Coronavirus: COVID-19 social media theories debunked
Photo credit: Facebook

It also claims that said troops have been asked to train using the same "plan of attack used in Timor", such as "brute force" and "any force necessary".

"The training for the next two weeks is dealing with protests, riots and a significant job loss in NZ [sic]," the theory claims.

What we know

Defence Force personnel do play a crucial role in the COVID-19 response and the  management of managed isolation and quarantine facilities (MIQ). Speaking to Politik in June, Defence Minister Ron Mark stressed that military personnel involved in MIQ are unarmed and "can not itself turn up on the streets with weapons or turn up in any locality and decide for itself to deploy lethal force". 

"You can only do that if the Prime Minister has declared martial law and that has not - and is certainly not - going to happen," he told the outlet.

According to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, it's understood that NZDF personnel are currently supporting NZ Police efforts at the nine roadblocks around Auckland's geographical boundary, under Auckland's preliminary three-day alert level 3 lockdown.

A spokesperson for the NZDF told Newshub the Defence Force was currently providing support to the All of Government response to COVID-19 and that its involvement in assisting police with checkpoints was "far from unusual" and "routinely trained for".

"The NZDF is here to serve and help New Zealand through the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation, and we will play our part in responding to requests for assistance from the Government – the civil authority - while at the same time maintaining our ongoing responsibilities and other military commitments," the spokesperson said.

"With regard to the mention of 'martial law' in the social media post, the NZDF operates at all times at the direction of the Government, and, in the current situation is acting in support of civil authorities - such as police, Ministry of Health and other agencies.   Any characterisation of this support as 'martial law' is incorrect. 'Martial law' is not a feature of modern New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements."

The common sense approach

Something about the use of "brute force" to handle New Zealand's "significant job loss" doesn't add up. What are they going to do, use "any force necessary" to create new job openings?

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has also been contacted for comment.