SURRATT: Monkeypox incident shows how rumors can hurt

Published 4:00 am Friday, August 12, 2022

A saying attributed to the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes says that freedom of speech does not give someone the right to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

Basically, it means that while we have the right to free speech, that right comes with responsibilities — and one of those responsibilities is to refrain from causing panic or injuring someone.

Last week, someone yelled “Fire!” in a crowded theater when they spread an unfounded rumor that two employees at a local convenience store had monkeypox, a rare viral disease spread through close personal contact, including skin-to-skin contact, adversely affecting the store’s business.

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According to store owner Falah El Khamil, the rumor was the second time an unfounded claim was made against his store. The first, he said, was a complaint to Health Department officials that he was selling bad meat. That complaint was cleared after a Health Department inspector found there was no violation. The monkeypox rumor, he said, came shortly after the meat complaint.

I don’t know who started the monkeypox rumor or why, but it’s an example of how something said in anger or even jest can affect an individual’s life or their business. And in a small town where reading Facebook on a daily basis seems to be a regular part of everyday life, it’s easy for rumors to take a life of their own and that includes the smallest little comment about children being sick at school to what’s going on at the neighbors.

Rumors are part of the fabric of life in a small town like Vicksburg, where everybody knows everybody and in some cases, too much of their neighbor’s business, whether it’s fencepost discussions in the backyard or Mayor George Flaggs Jr.’s infamous “Street Committee” that seems to know how to run Vicksburg better than anyone else.

I remember during my first few years in Vicksburg hearing reports of problems at Warren Central High School, only to have them refuted because someone saw a Facebook post someone else put up about a bomb scare or shooting at a Warren Central High School in Bowling Green, Ky., or Indianapolis, Ind.

And that is the problem with rumors. In this day and age of the internet, Facebook, Tik Tok, Instagram and other sites, rumors can spread faster than a wildfire, and many times folks are all too eager to pass on information without checking the source. Of course, the technology that spreads rumors can also kill them if people would take a little time to do a bit of research on the internet or call officials to find out what’s going on. For example, if you see a post about something at Warren Central High School, take time to find out if it’s the Warren Central here or in another state.

In the 11 years I’ve lived here, I’ve found Vicksburg to be a friendly place to live and I’ve known some very good people. The monkeypox rumor made us all look bad. It hurt a man’s business that he built for 15 years and put him in dire straights. That’s the kind of behavior we don’t need.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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