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The Daniel Radcliffe coronavirus hoax is only the beginning

On Tuesday, a fake Twitter account posing as the BBC Breaking News page tweeted that Daniel Radcliffe had become the “first famous person” to test positive for coronavirus. It quickly accumulated nearly a thousand retweets and likes, including from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Politico’s editorial director, Blake Hounshell — both of whom apologized for getting duped.

Radcliffe’s team simply confirmed to Buzzfeed that the report was “not true.” Although Radcliffe wasn’t the first famous person to test positive for coronavirus, he was certainly the first famous person to be the subject of this kind of COVID-19 hoax. Buzzfeed messaged some users of the anonymous 33-member group behind the hoax, highlighting some of their aims to make society more “tech savvy” by making fake tweets.

The idea was to exploit a celebrity, in this case, one who doesn’t have a personal Twitter account — but does monitor his girlfriend’s accounts to keep up with Rob Delaney and old Deadspin writers. Their other possible targets: around the same level of fame as David Hasselhoff, Megan Fox, or Pamela Anderson. In other words, “people that are famous but people will only care about them if something huge happens,” as one hoaxer told Buzzfeed.

Through a bit of cryptic trolling, one member refused to expand more on their location or background. “I am a celestial being, I have been formed from the cosmos,” they said. “We are scattered around the world and the cyberverse.”

It’s no new revelation that misinformation can proliferate more quickly during times of crisis, with society’s collective ability to sift through surreal developments eroding by the day. This is naturally going to get much worse as coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world and quarantines become the norm. But the collision of this sort of pandemic confusion with celebrity news is certainly something new, and a trend that might continue into the spring.

Up to this point, celebrities’ involvement with coronavirus was largely about sharing their thoughts on tour cancellations, or in some cases, spreading common myths. Gwyneth Paltrow, Bella Hadid, and Kate Hudson all shared photos in face masks, a mechanism that’s effectively useless to anyone who hasn’t contracted the virus or come in immediate contact with someone who has it. Cardi B is also getting pretty worried about its progression.

That said, it only feels like a matter of time before a notable public figure contracts the virus, with numerous tours, rallies and public events still being held in the face of its spread, so this creates a distinct kind of panic when someone famous appears to have light cold or cough symptoms. The Pope, of all people, had to fend off unsubstantiated rumors last week that he’d been tested for coronavirus rather than just fighting a common cold.

When I saw news that Celine Dion had canceled some tour dates over a cold, my first thought was “uh oh,” and remembering that just last week she touched a very talented fan who sang “I Surrender” outside her hotel in New York. But Dion quickly received coronavirus testing, which confirmed her results were negative. The wealthiest members of society will be the most likely to receive prompt testing, but also the most likely to indulge our strange conspiracies.

The city of Newark, for its part, is taking extreme action against the spread of disinformation. Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose shared a statement yesterday confirming that “any false reporting of the coronavirus in our city will result in criminal prosecution,” he said. “We are putting forth every investigative effort to identify anyone making false allegations on social media to ensure that any posted information is immediately addressed.”

While it’s hard to imagine what any prompt legal action would look like, efforts to localize and contain the spread of false reports seem to miss the broader forces at play. If 33 random people on the internet can get national politics writers to believe for a moment that Daniel Radcliffe has coronavirus, there’s little you can do to curb the mania in your backyard.