A Snapchat video about spreading COVID-19 landed a Texas teenager in jail on terrorism charges, even though there’s no evidence 18-year-old Lorraine Maradiaga actually had or spread the illness.
On April 5, the Carrollton, Texas, police posted screenshots from Maradiaga’s Snapchat to the department’s Facebook account, announcing that they had “identified the woman seen on social media claiming to be COVID-19 positive and willfully spreading it.” They added that they were “charging her with Terroristic Threat,” a third-degree felony.
The Carrollton police had not yet located Maradiaga, and they had “no confirmation Maradiaga is actually a threat to public health,” the post said. “We are, however, taking her social media actions very seriously.”
In one Snapchat video, Maradiaga allegedly tells the camera that she is awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. A subsequent post is captioned “yo wtf she saying I actually gotit,” according to local news station WFAA. In a followup video, Maradiaga reportedly claims to be at Walmart and declares she’s about “to infest” people “because if I’m going down, all y’all…going down.”
Maradiaga was not actually shown coughing on or trying “to infest” anyone, per police and media accounts of the video.
The department announced on April 7 that police had taken Maradiaga into custody that morning. “Maradiaga has stated that she is COVID-19 negative, and we currently have no proof that Maradiaga has tested positive,” the announcement said.
Maradiaga was booked for making a “terroristic threat” and released on a $20,000 bond, a condition of which is that she must self-quarantine for 21 days.
We don’t know whether Maradiaga intended to cause panic, intended her posts as humor, thought she had COVID-19 but turned out not to, or had some other reason to do what she did. Maybe she’s a troubled young woman seeking attention. Maybe she just has poor taste and bad judgment in pranks.
I think most people would agree that it’s dumb to lie about having COVID-19, irresponsible to joke about spreading it, and cruel and stupid to do this in a social media post. But joking and pretending are things young people are known to do online. Maradiaga isn’t the first or last teenager who will err on the wrong side. That does not make her a terrorist.
So this isn’t a story about someone spreading COVID-19. It’s a story about a person being prosecuted for speech with a debatable meaning, and about authorities using a terrorism-related law to throw the book at someone when another solution would suffice.