Scattered amid a relentless barrage of news about COVID-19 case surges, quarantine orders, and medical supply shortages on Twitter this week, some happy stories softened the blows: Swans had returned to deserted Venetian canals. Dolphins too. And a group of elephants had sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, gotten drunk off corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden.
These reports of wildlife triumphs in countries hard-hit by the novel coronavirus got hundreds of thousands of retweets. They went viral on Instagram and Tik Tok. They made news headlines. If there’s a silver lining of the pandemic, people said, this was it – animals were bouncing back, running free in a humanless world.
But it wasn’t real.
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. The “Venetian” dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away. No one has figured out where the drunken elephant photos came from, but a Chinese news report debunked the viral posts: While elephants did recently come through a village in Yunnan Province, China, their presence isn’t out of the norm, they aren’t the elephants in the viral photos, and they didn’t get drunk and pass out in a tea field.
The phenomenon highlights how quickly eye-popping, too-good-to-be-true rumors can spread in times of crisis. People are compelled to share posts that make them emotional. When we’re feeling stressed, joyous animal footage can be an irresistible salve. The spread of social phenomena is so powerful, 2016 research shows, that it can follow same models that trace the contagion of epidemics.
This is an excerpt from an article by Natasha Daly, originally published on National Geographic.