Coronavirus: Man who started COVID-19 community outbreak rumour in New Zealand speaks out

A young man behind the Reddit musings that seemingly inspired a widely-circulated COVID-19 conspiracy theory has now revealed his side of the story.

Last week, a rumour regarding the source of Auckland's outbreak of community transmission ran rampant on social media. A viral Facebook post, alleging COVID-19's reemergence was due to a young woman infiltrating a managed isolation facility to visit her deportee boyfriend, appeared to kickstart the torrent of misinformation online. 

Health officials were alerted to its spread, and in an impassioned plea, Health Minister Chris Hipkins urged Kiwis to stop sharing social media ramblings and get information from credible sources. He shut down the theory as "virulent" and "malicious", revealing it had caused immense distress to the family implicated in the rumours. 

A Facebook post outlining the rumour that quickly went viral.
A Facebook post outlining the rumour that quickly went viral. Photo credit: Facebook

Yet it appears the viral Facebook post was not the original source of the rumour.

In a piece for New Zealand journalist David Farrier's Webworm newsletter, released on Tuesday morning, film editor and Tickled collaborator Dylan Reeve linked the theory's origin to a Reddit comment shared by a young professional.

The man, who has not been identified, was tracked down by Reeve for a phone interview.

Speaking to Reeve, the man said there had been talk in his social circles claiming a young woman had been sneaking into a managed isolation facility. He claims he obtained the information from a friend who attended Auckland University with the woman allegedly involved.

When new cases of community transmission were revealed in an impromptu press conference last Tuesday, the man said he made the "poor decision" to share the original rumours - "bits and pieces" of information he says "seemed legitimate" - on Reddit. 

However, the man was "quite horrified" to see how quickly his words were spread across social media.

"I just realised how bad it was on Saturday, which is when I went in and tried to clean up as much as I could, but by then it's got a life of its own," he told Reeve.

"And because when I wrote about it, it was one of the earliest times it appeared, that theory was put together."

The man's comment appeared to be the blueprint for the vitriolic Facebook post that followed, Reeve notes. 

The Reddit post believed to be the origin of the viral rumour.
The Reddit post believed to be the origin of the viral rumour. Photo credit: Reddit via Webworm

The man is now preparing to face the consequences of his actions. He has considered he may be charged under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, and is fearful he may lose his job. 

The man said he is willing to cooperate with authorities as he wants to "make it right". 

"It literally took me three minutes to write, and I completely end my career... in a three minute Reddit post that I left online for [maybe] a few hours," he told Reeve.

"And I will take the consequences, because honestly it's one of the worst things I've ever done, articulating that.

"It's inexcusable."

On Saturday, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry of Health debunked the theory after Newshub reached out for comment, confirming there was "no evidence" to support the information contained in the rumours.