“Will your bill allow citizens to be arrested for speaking out against critical race theory?”

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, directed the question to Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville. It was one of many he received from constituents about HB16, which Dunnigan is sponsoring.

Dunnigan sighed. “Um, no,” he said.

The exchange was one of many in which Dunnigan addressed concerns about his bill during a meeting of the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Monday. Discussion of the bill centered around a “litany” of public comments lawmakers received from constituents who worry the bill would allow health departments and other entities to declare “false” emergencies and institute martial law.

In reality, Dunnigan said his bill would provide workers’ compensation benefits to emergency response team members — primarily Utah firefighters who are sent to assist with disasters or special security events. The bill would also increase funding to the National Guard for fire suppression and make it easier for the state to reimburse local fire authorities so they can pay personnel who are fighting fires in neighboring states.

Currently, other states are responsible for covering the cost of fire suppression when they request help from Utah, but the process of reimbursement can take months. HB16 would let local jurisdictions request an 80% upfront reimbursement from the state of Utah until the full amount is paid out.

What the bill doesn’t do

Some constituents have latched onto language in the original version of the bill that they incorrectly believe would allow the United States Department of Homeland Security to mobilize the National Guard or other emergency response teams in Utah.

Many of these fears seem to stem from a YouTube video posted last week by Ben McClintock, co-founder of Defending Utah, a local organization that has previously called the COVID-19 pandemic “fake” and cast doubt on the effectiveness and safety of coronavirus vaccines.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that COVID-19 booster shots double the protection against severe illness caused by the omicron variant of the virus.

The video was in response to HB16, as well as an editorial published by a Utah newspaper earlier this month which said the governor could go as far to deploy the National Guard to assist with a mass vaccination campaign.

In the video, McClintock incorrectly speculated that HB16 could give “random citizens like (Dr.) Angela Dunn,” the head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, the ability to call up emergency response teams and that such teams could send unvaccinated individuals to “concentration camps.” McClintock said he was just “asking a lot of questions” and encouraged his viewers to write or call their legislators — which they apparently did.

“Urban search and rescue being organized by DHS SOUNDS LIKE A MILITARY OPERATION. Against us? Against who? Are you planning to wage war against us??” read one email sent to Sen. Mike McKell, the floor sponsor of the bill.

“This is a SCARY bill- ripe for abuse that will make 2020 look like a picnic. UN policing anyone?” read another.

Committee members were quick to push back on what they called “misinformation” and “fabrication” about the bill, reiterating that the bill does not allow the National Guard to arrest anyone, does not empower school boards or health departments to mobilize militarized response teams, and no, the United Nations was not involved in drafting the bill.

“I hope this bill passes the Senate Committee today. It literally has nothing to do with what you are claiming,” McKell wrote in response to one of the emails he received.

The committee recommended HB16 unanimously on Monday, but added an amendment to clear up some of the language in the bill and specify that emergency response teams can “assist in urban search and rescue” and assist FEMA during a disaster or emergency.

Having already passed the House unanimously, HB16 will be sent to the Senate for final approval.

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Combating misinformation

Jim Tabery, professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, said the public comment period and subsequent amendment may actually be a step in the right direction when it comes to combating misinformation.

“I think in some sense, this is kind of a success story,” he said. “People in the community got worked up. Those agitations were conveyed to the political leaders. The political leaders replied, both in that committee hearing and via communications and said, ‘Hey, this is not what’s actually going on here.’”

Tabery teaches a class on epistemology, which focuses on “deploying philosophical tools to distinguish ... reasonable ideas from unreasonable ideas.” While unfounded, he said concerns about vague language in the bill were met with a willingness by lawmakers to explain themselves and eventually clarify the language itself.

He doesn’t expect the amendment will change everybody’s minds but said it’s a good example of how to deal with unfounded claims.

“You sort of have to hear people out, even if you think it’s coming from a spot that’s not really supported in fact, and help them reason through the actual situation as it is,” he said, adding that he expects the uproar over HB16 to fade fairly quickly.

Tabery also said it helps to “take the term ‘conspiracy theory’ off the table, because it’s already such a loaded, stigmatized term. Nobody out there identifies as a conspiracy theorist. People identify as a fact-finder, as somebody who does their own research.”

The problem is, most people need to rely on experts, Tabery said, because they don’t have the expertise or time to actually conduct meaningful analysis.

“We all go through our lives relying on experts in some way,” he said. “If your cat isn’t eating, you take your cat to the vet. If your car isn’t starting, you take your car to the mechanic. You’re not just going to do your own research and figure out what’s wrong with your cat or watch a YouTube video and fix your car.”

Conspiracy theories have grown in recent years, Tabery said, in part because of former president Donald Trump — who “trafficked regularly in conspiracy theories” — and in part because COVID-19 lockdowns and mask mandates played into existing fears of government control. Our internet ecosystem is also to blame, allowing misinformation a greater reach than it has ever had before.

“The internet or social media is laid out in a way that allows you to find information that confirms the biases you already have. That’s not how science is done,” he said. “But that is how these theories get concocted. I could make just about anything up and then go find information on the internet that would corroborate that. Unfortunately, when people talk about doing their own research, or just asking questions, typically, what that amounts to is poking around on the internet or social media for a little while and hunting for things that confirm your suspicions.”

He said conspiracy theories can be dangerous — even when they don’t result in an attempted insurrection or a gunman storming a pizza parlor — because it can cause a feedback loop that erodes trust in institutions and society.

“We need trust,” he said. “We need trust in our leaders. We need trust in scientific and medical experts. We need trust in our neighbors. ... Trust is the glue that keeps society together. If that erodes, I think it does present a real threat to the communities that we share.”