While we shelter in place and keep up our six feet of social distancing, it appears our isolation gives fuel to our imagination to soften the blow in times of crisis. Boredom and lack of worldly activities might be the cause for conjuring up some fake animal news stories. Particularly if we can use the social media channels of Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, and the new social media darling "Tik Tok" to give them life and prompt them to go viral.
At this point, who hasn't heard the one about wildlife sauntering into desolate cities and towns, where heretofore they would never dare to go. Swans returning to Venice's canals or Elephants, in the absence of humans getting drunk off of corn wine and passing out in a tea garden are fun stories to hear and share with those close to us. They provide a fiction where animals get to triumph, in times when we are restricted from leaving the house.
Natasha Daly of National Geographic summed it up nicely in her feature titled, "Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life." She said: " If there’s a silver lining of the pandemic . . . this was it — animals were bouncing back, running free in a humanless world."
They made news headlines, but they were Fake News
However, the facts tell us differently. The viral swans of Venice appear in the canals of Burano regularly, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were captured.
There is no source for the drunken elephant photos [see below], and a Chinese news report debunked this viral tweet.
The similarity to the Spanish Influenza of 1918
Snakes became the animal of choice during the Spanish Influenza. One way the Covid-19 is similar to the Spanish Influenza of 1918 is the prevalence of snake oil salesmen. These are men whose miracle concoctions falsely claim to be cure-alls. Does this remind anyone of our president promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine in 2020, without any evidence of its efficacy?
Unfortunately, these medicinal solutions did not contain a lick of actual snake oil, either literally or figuratively. Most famously, in 1917, federal investigators tested the popular Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment and found it contained no medicinal benefits, including none of the promised snake oil. This is probably when “snake oil” began to be associated with fraud, and is still used in today's parlance.
The precedent is a clarion call for all of us today. Be wary of unsolicited emails offering information, supplies, or treatment for COVID-19 or requesting your personal information for medical purposes. Legitimate health authorities would never contact the general public this way.
The Need to Conjure . . .
This phenomenon underscores the need for too-good-to-be-true news during a time of crisis. People are stimulated to share items that make them feel good. When we’re feeling anxious these types of rumors are a welcome departure from woe.
The need to conjure up things that make us feel good is accelerated as we try to come to grips with a pandemic, a collapsing economy, and sudden isolation -- all factors out of our control.
“In times when we’re all really lonely, it’s tempting to hold onto that feeling, especially if we’re posting something that gives people a lot of hope,” said Erin Vogel, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.
"The idea that animals and nature could actually flourish during this crisis “could help give us a sense of meaning and purpose—that we went through this for a reason,” she added.
. . . and that meaning and purpose are not wrong. It just needs to weighed against reality. As Lois Brandeis once said: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” And in the light of day, separating fact from fiction keeps us grounded for the next time we take our flight of imagination with the animals.