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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Viral ‘internment camp’ conspiracy climbs to the top of Misinformation Mountain

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 19, 2022

Congressional candidate Joe Kent encourages those outside the Department of Health in Tumwater on Wednesday who showed up to protest a nonexistent plan to forcibly quarantine people who refuse the COVID vaccine. Kent is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.  (Seattle Times)
Congressional candidate Joe Kent encourages those outside the Department of Health in Tumwater on Wednesday who showed up to protest a nonexistent plan to forcibly quarantine people who refuse the COVID vaccine. Kent is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. (Seattle Times)

“If true,” read the headline to post on an online forum, “would this be your line in the sand?”

The forum posted a link to a story at Gateway Pundit, a factory of right-wing crackpottery, about an outrageous conspiracy: Washington state was getting ready to start rounding up the unvaccinated and forcing them into camps.

Lock and load, patriots.

If true, that is.

Every good conspiracy requires a camp threat, and boy did COVID conspiracists cook one up this time. In the latest example of the deluded Holocaust-ification of the pandemic, tens of thousands of people deluged state officials with their outraged objections to concentration camps for the unvaxxed – including, of course, threats of violence aimed at government officials.

It’s another prime example, as if we needed one, of the way that bad information, ranging from misunderstanding to outright lies, spreads online like a … well, you know.

The concentration-camps conspiracy seems to have begun – or at least had an early iteration – at the Post Millenial on Jan. 6, a Canada-based web site that publishes a lot of far-right nonsense.

The post reproduced a lot of legal language – flecked with bits of insinuation – surrounding a Board of Health meeting at which changes were being made to state law governing, among other issues, quarantine in cases where someone infected with a communicable disease is an imminent threat to others. The proposed changes had to do with HIV, not COVID-19, and were being made in response to a law passed last year intended to de-stigmatize HIV and remove some of the exceptional regulations applied to it.

It should go without saying that there was no proposal of any kind, at any stage of germination, about rounding up the unvaccinated and herding them into camps.

The Gateway Pundit picked up the “story” a couple of days later, ratcheting up the dishonesty: “The Washington State Board of Health may soon amend state law to authorize the involuntary detainment of residents as young as 5 years old in Covid-19 ‘internment camps’ for failing to comply with the state’s experimental vaccine mandate.”

Soon, it was everywhere in the alt-reality universe, getting wronger and wronger with every step, from the Ricochet (“WA State Health Leaders Propose Police State”) to Christianity Daily (“Washington Bill, If Approved, Will Authorize Strike Force to Send Unvaccinated to COVID ‘Internment Camps’ ”) to the New American (“The Washington State Board of Health has proposed forcibly isolating and quarantining .. those merely “suspected” of being infected.”)

As usual, the lies crept from the fringes toward the mainstream. The Skagit Valley Republican Party passed it along as an “Emergency Action Alert!” and gave members a cut-and-paste opinion to email into the state. Three far-right candidates for Congress tried to whip their followers into a frenzy over the false story. Joe Kent went on Steve Bannon’s podcast to promote his rally against the “forced quarantine.” Jesse Jensen condemned the “Gestapo tactics.” Doug Basler urged people to oppose these “Soviet-style lockdowns.”

All of it – every bit – for a story that was obviously 100% false.

Meanwhile, individuals were sharing this misinformation across all manner of social media platforms. The headline at the top of this column, for example, was posted not at some alt-right web page or on your crazy uncle’s Facebook page – but at a site ostensibly focused on Texas A&M athletics, TexAgs.

There, the revolutionary fervor was burning bright.

The original poster wrote, “Forcing me and my family into quarantine camps against our will would be the last straw. I know I’d be taken out but several members of their ‘strike force’ would be joining me in Valhalla.”

Another wrote, “Don’t get in the boxcar.”

Another, “I will kill anyone who comes for my family or even my conservative neighbors. Don’t care if you’re wearing a badge and ‘just doing your job’. That’s not a threat, just a reality.”

And another, “Remember, aim for the officers first!”

Protesters swamped the Board of Health meeting last week, where, it may not surprise you to learn, there was no plan to adopt or discuss or consider any plan to incarcerate the unvaccinated. By this point, the conspiracy had climbed to the pinnacle of the Misinformation Mountain: Glenn Beck peddled it on the Tucker Carlson show. Carlson later acknowledged there was no evidence to believe it was true, though “our minds remain open and we’ll continue to look.”

The nonsense had spread so far that many national news organizations took it up and fact-checked it, from Politico to U.S. News and World Report to CNN.

And yet, among those who swallowed the story uncritically, we can hold out little hope that facts will make a dent. We are 850,000 deaths into a pandemic that has been sustained by quackery and conspiracy, which keeps us stalled at vaccination levels that are stoking the crisis.

As Jonathan Swift wrote more than 400 years ago, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

Editors’ note: This column has been updated to correct a reference to the web site Christianity Daily.

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