As coronavirus sparks rumors, Houston officials dispel social media myth of a citywide “lockdown”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday night dispelled myths being spread on social media that the city is about to be in a lock-down situation. || Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Houston officials on Friday announced an investigation into messages posted on social media falsely claiming the city is going into a lockdown this weekend to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

"All of that is untrue," Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference. "I do believe it is a crime, and we should investigate it and find these perpetrators, these actors, and prosecute them."

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While schools, bars and restaurant dining rooms have been shuttered statewide, including in Houston, there aren't any instances of local or state officials issuing shelter-in-place orders. California this week issued such an order, which generally keeps people in their homes, though they are allowed to go out for essential trips, like getting groceries or going to the bank, according to Wired.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said it is likely that "hostile foreign governments" are behind the misinformation campaign.

"A lot of this, if not most of it, is being driven by hostile governments that are intentionally trying to spread pandemonium and fear," Acevedo said.

Acevedo referred to previous instances of foreign entities spreading anxiety and fear through misinformation, including a 2015 military training exercise that conspiracy theorists speculated was a covert effort to institute martial law. A former CIA director later said hysteria over the exercise, Jade Helm 15, was fueled by Russians.

Both the Houston Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney’s office will be involved in the investigation, Turner said.