Man sentenced to 15 months in prison for spreading COVID-19 hoax on Facebook

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FILE- In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square. Days before Germany’s federal elections, Facebook removed a network of accounts that it said had spread COVID-19 misinformation and encouraged violent responses to COVID restrictions. The crackdown, announced Sept. 16, 2021, was the first use of Facebook’s new “coordinated social harm” policy aimed at stopping not state-sponsored disinformation campaigns but otherwise typical users who have mounted an increasingly sophisticated effort to sidestep rules on hate speech or misinformation. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

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October 31 2021 11:59 pm

A man who perpetuated a COVID-19 hoax on Facebook last year has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Christopher Charles Perez was found guilty on two counts, which criminalize false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons, the Justice Department announced this week.

Authorities say that in April 2020, the 40-year-old Perez posted two false, threatening messages on Facebook, claiming he paid someone infected with COVID-19 to lick items at a grocery store in San Antonio to scare people away. A screenshot of the post was sent to Southwest Texas Fusion Center (SWTFC). SWTFC contacted the the FBI office in San Antonio.

After further investigation, it was determined Perez’s threat was false – he did not pay anyone to intentionally spread COVID-19. Perez also admitted his post was false.

“Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax,” FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said in a statement. “Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime. The FBI would like to thank our law enforcement partners for their help in this case.”

In addition to his 15-month sentence, Perez was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. 

The investigation was conducted by FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with Weapons of Mass Destruction personnel. 

During the pandemic, hoaxes like Perez’s post have run rampant on many social media platforms, which have responded by ramping up their efforts to combat the spread of misinformation.

Facebook says it has deleted over 20 million false posts and shut down the accounts of 3,000 repeat offenders. The company says it has also put warning labels on 190 million questionable posts and promoted factual vaccine information.

However, a Wall Street Journal report last month described how Facebook’s algorithms allegedly push divisive content, because it promotes user engagement. In a “60 Minutes” interview this week, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen said the social media platform changed its algorithm in 2018 to promote “what it calls meaningful social interactions” through “engagement-based rankings.” 

She said that content that gets engaged with – such as reactions, comments, and shares – gets wider distribution.

Haugen quit Facebook on her own accord and left with thousands of pages of internal research and communications that she shared with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She testified in front of a Senate subcommittee this week.

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