As the usually crowded Venice canals became deserted amid COVID-19 quarantines measures, fake wildlife news and social media posts—claiming swans and dolphins are returning—have gone viral.
Scattered amid a massive barrage of news about the coronavirus pandemic crisis surges, medical supply shortages and many cities throughout the world under lockdown, some fake stories have given us false hope.
An article originally published on The Hill—later picked up by dozens of news websites—claim swans and dolphins had returned to the abandoned Venetian canals.
Another news outlet reported that a group of elephants recently sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, got drunk off corn wine and passed out in a tea garden.
These stories of wildlife triumphs in countries hard-hit by the coronavirus got hundreds of thousands of retweets and shares.
They went viral on Instagram and Tik Tok, giving people hope on wildlife survival—animals were bouncing back, running free in a human-free environment.
Though these stories made headlines in the global media, it turns out they were all FAKE!
When Fake Stories Go Viral
The swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken.
Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja, from New Delhi, India, originally shared the photos.
She said she saw some photos on social media and decided to share them on a tweet, unaware that the swans were already regulars in Burano before the coronavirus tore across Italy.
Ahuja didn’t expect the photos to go viral or cause any harm.
“The tweet was just about sharing something that brought me joy in these gloomy times. I wish there was an edit option on Twitter just for moments like this.”
Nonetheless, she doesn’t plan to delete the post, arguing it’s still relevant because waters in Venice canals are clearer than usual—due to decrease in boat activities—and that’s what matters, she says.
The dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away from Venice canals.
And nobody has figured out yet where the drunk elephant pictures came from, but a Chinese news outlet debunked the viral posts.
While elephants often wander to villages in Yunnan Province, China, their presence isn’t out of the norm. And they’re not the featured elephants in the viral posts.
The Pull of Posting
According to Erin Vogel, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, getting a lot of likes, shares and comments on social media posts “gives us an immediate social reward,” making us feel good.
And the need to seek out things that make us feel good may be exacerbated right now, as people try to come to grips with COVID-19 pandemic, a collapsing economy, and sudden isolation.
“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.”
And the idea that wildlife 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 says.
But spreading fake, feel-good stories can make people even more distrustful at a time when everyone already feels vulnerable.