COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As members of the Ohio National Guard headed into the field this spring to help fight the coronavirus epidemic, guard members faced another battle: misinformation.
“The National Guard has taken over the prison. That is Martial Law being applied today,” read a tweet in late April as guard members headed to hard-hit Marion Correctional Institution to assist with staffing with multiple guards home sick or quarantined.
As martial law rumors lit up on Twitter and Facebook, the guard was also accused of plotting to enforce illegal orders and take away people’s constitutional rights, said Adjutant General John Harris, the head of the Ohio guard.
“In an environment such as this, there’s so much misinformation flying around both in social media and real life,” Harris said in an interview earlier this week.
Similar rumors spread around the U.S. in late March as false rumors spread of a national two-week quarantine to be enforced by the National Guard.
The same month, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine addressed similar conspiracy theories when he ordered guard members to help with food distribution at the state’s food banks as demand skyrocketed almost overnight following DeWine’s initial stay-at-home orders.
“The National Guard is not involved in carrying weapons. You may see them carrying groceries,” DeWine said on March 20.
The Ohio Guard saw its coronavirus mission expand several times in the past three months. Currently, it’s helping with food distribution and security staffing and medical help in prisons. It also collected and stored personal protective equipment for the state Health Department and Emergency Management Agency, a mission that has since wrapped up.
On Monday, it adds a fourth deployment: spreading out across the state to expand testing in nursing homes to all staff, under a directive announced this month by DeWine. Fourteen teams of 10 medically trained guard members will undertake the testing.
The rumors that plagued the guard aren’t new, but are more easily distributed today because of social media, said Tim Melley, a Miami University English professor who researches conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, such disinformation campaigns are becoming increasingly organized.
They also reflect a broader societal skepticism with the country’s large intelligence community, much of whose information is unavailable to the average American, said Melley, author of “Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.”
Meanwhile, a lot of the rumors closely resemble the plots of popular TV shows, movies and books.
“What seems shocking about these allegations is that people are claiming that something that most of us engage in, in the form of fiction, is actually a fact,” Melley said.
Once the Ohio guard begins its nursing home testing, more than 1,000 guard members will be deployed on coronavirus duty around the state. They join guard members called up across the country to help during the pandemic. That includes guard units also assisting with nursing home testing in several states including Colorado, Massachusetts, and Michigan.
Harris said a top priority is keeping guard members safe as they enter prisons and nursing homes where containing the coronavirus is more difficult. He hopes seeing the guard’s trained medical personnel at work will dispel people’s outdated “weekend warrior” image of guard service.
“There’s nothing, nothing good about COVID-19 or the coronavirus,” Harris said.
“But one of the by-products that has come out of this for the National Guard is a better understanding of the National Guard and that only helps us respond better when our community expects that from us.”