As Ebola hysteria takes over cable news, a growing number of liars have taken to crowded public spaces to announce that they have the deadly virus.
On Monday afternoon, a man in a surgical mask boarded a Los Angeles bus, leaned into the driver and said, “Don’t mess with me, I have Ebola.” He and his female companion got off the bus a few minutes later, and authorities are still searching for them. The driver was taken to the hospital and released in good health.
The next day, three high school girls yelled, “We have Ebola!” as they got off an L.A. bus and ran away giggling, said L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Paul Gonzales. The incidents are being treated as hoaxes.
“If someone says that he has Ebola, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” Gonzales said. “But we know that there have been no cases of Ebola in California.”
A similar prank unfolded last week on a U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to the Dominican Republic. Just before landing, a man reportedly yelled, “I have Ebola!” and joked that he’d been to Africa. Officials in hazmat suits escorted him off the plane as he said he was “just kidding.”
It's not the first time people seeking attention have taken advantage of an unfolding crisis or tragedy to spread panic. After Sept. 11 and around its anniversary, bomb threats have led to numerous buildings being evacuated. This September, a Manhattan man was arrested for making 61 prank calls threatening a terrorist attack. People have screamed “I have AIDS!” after stabbing someone on a Greyhound bus and while robbing stores. And the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech were followed by hoax phone calls to schools that caused evacuations.
“The more widespread the tragedy, the more attention it gets in the press over a long period of time, the more likely it is that powerless individuals will see a way of establishing control in the worst kinds of ways,” said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University and author of many books about violence.
The sort of person who might yell “fire!” in a crowded theater is emboldened by scary events. Because Ebola is so deadly and feared, it doesn’t take more than a stupid joke — surgical mask optional — for a hoaxer to grab serious attention.
“Most of the perpetrators are people who are obsessed with power,” Levin said. “They’re desperate to feel superior and have control over the lives of others. That’s exactly what this does. With one phone call, they go from total obscurity to big shots who have moved hundreds, maybe thousands of people.”
The lawyer of Justin Davidson, the man who called in 61 bomb threats this September, told the New York Daily News, “I think what this really is, more than anything else from Mr. Davidson, is a cry for help.”
The media’s obsession with Ebola can encourage someone who’s already unstable. Jon Stewart recently skewered "sanity-resistant" cable news reports, which contribute to the mass anxiety that hoaxers exploit. With no end to the wall-to-wall coverage of the deadly virus in sight, Levin said that the coming months are bound to bring more Ebola hoaxes — which in turn will get plenty of coverage of their own.
An online search for news articles with the words “LA Ebola bus” returned more than 44 million results. By comparison, a search for “enterovirus” — the other infectious disease in the news at the moment — only returned slightly more than 1.2 million. (The flu is much more likely to kill you than either of those viruses.)
So if you find yourself trapped on a bus with someone screaming about having Ebola, try your best to stay calm. L.A. Metro’s Gonzales said he had just met with health officials, who told him a person diagnosed with Ebola would be physically unable to walk onto a bus.
“Your chances of finding a person on a public bus who has Ebola are virtually zero,” he said.
Health officials have repeatedly stated — and the White House has reminded the public — that the only way to contract Ebola is to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has already begun showing symptoms.