"Detention camp" bill misinformation spreads on social media

Randi F. Marshall for Newsday

January 08, 2021

Originally published in Newsday on January 08, 2021.

A social media frenzy of misinformation, whipped up in part by state Republicans, involves a bill that doesn’t even have a chance of becoming law.

And on Thursday, that frenzy reached national levels, when Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham highlighted the legislation, giving Republican State Sen. George Borrello a huge platform to criticize it without any reality check.

The Assembly bill, A416, which was first introduced by Assemb. Nick Perry in 2015 and has been reintroduced each year since, would allow state officials to detain individuals who are ill from or carriers of a contagious disease. Originally related to Ebola, it was meant to act as a way to quarantine individuals during a pandemic — but it long predated COVID-19.

The quarantine concept alone was enough to scare people, but in social media circles, the bill quickly turned into legislation that would create "detention camps." And the opposition went beyond Facebook and Twitter, leading some unmasked protesters to confront the assemblyman outside his office in Brooklyn Wednesday.

And then there was Ingraham.

"Democrats are using this crisis as a way, clearly, to try to control the movement and behavior of Americans," Ingraham said.

Said Borrello: "This is a very serious infringement on our constitutional rights."

Borrello compared the bill to the state’s bail reform and criminal justice reform efforts, suggesting that criminals can’t be held.

"If this thing became law, we’d have a situation where violent criminals, in some cases, or criminals, can go free and people who they deemed who may be a COVID or some other health threat can be detained for three days," Ingraham said. "Where’s the ACLU?"

The true story? The bill doesn’t even have a State Senate sponsor and likely isn’t going anywhere, even as it was referred to the Assembly health committee Wednesday. And it doesn’t set up detention "camps."

But none of that stopped it from spreading through social media groups and beyond. A Facebook group called New Yorkers Against Bill A416 gathered more than 1,000 members, and people posted about their worries about concentration camps and a COVID-19 "virus identification badge."

Adding fuel to the fire, Rep. Lee Zeldin put out a statement last weekend, calling the bill "a direct assault on our Constitutional guarantee of due process." And separately, state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy issued a statement saying the bill should be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, local lawmakers are hearing from constituents. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky received about a hundred emails about the bill, with some suggesting it would "detain and forcibly vaccinate New Yorkers without proper due process." State Sen. Kevin Thomas received calls and emails, too, his spokeswoman said.

"Most of the calls we got have been from older folks who seemed genuinely terrified and had no idea that the bill was old," Thomas’ spokeswoman added. "It was upsetting."

She added that the calls and emails began to die down once people understood the reality of the situation.

But many individuals assumed the bill was heading for a vote — or even to become law. Zeldin’s statement had noted that the bill would be referred to the Assembly’s health committee come Wednesday, Jan. 6. He was right on the specifics. But some assumed that meant a vote was coming, too.

The bill, said one post on a Facebook page for the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights this week, "gives the Governor sweeping power to arrest and imprison people thought to be infected with a communicable disease, or even for the possibility of coming into contact with someone who might have a communicable disease. There are rumors that there will be a vote on the bill on January 6, and some people are terrified."

In its post, the Alliance later dispelled those rumors, saying the bill was "not an imminent threat," but added:

"Does that all mean we have nothing to worry about? No…"

And then the Alliance advocated that people email their representatives — and donate to its related organization, the Autism Action Network, an advocacy group focused on vaccine injury and other issues.