Misleading positive news about the coronavirus outbreak is spreading like wildfire on social media, including one particular post which went viral via a Colorado record store, a Bangladeshi Facebook page, and then exploded all over WhatsApp.
When we think of misleading online posts about the coronavirus we usually think of scary things like false rumours about the army marching through London, or the claim that coronavirus is a “bioweapon”.
But good news can be misleading too when facts are stripped of context then shared and reposted tens of thousands of times.
“Everybody is terrified so they’re looking for a glimmer of hope,” said Claire Wardle of First Draft News.
One post in particular has had hundreds of thousands of interactions across social media, giving some supposedly “positive news” about the virus in list form.
Fact-checking site Snopes has done a lengthy analysis of this post and deemed it “mostly true”.
However, many of the points in the list lack vital context, and the overall picture it gives is a misleading one.
The earliest version of the “positive news” post BuzzFeed News could find on Facebook was on March 14 in a post by a “classic rock DJ” called Michele on a group called New Jersey Conservatives.
In a conversation on Facebook Messenger, she told BuzzFeed News that she first saw the post on a friend’s feed, and shared it further “just to calm some panic”.
Though it is not possible to find the very first person who ever posted the list — it may well have originated on text, WhatsApp, or someone’s private Facebook account — another early version of the post was by Ryan Dykstra Records, a store in Colorado.
Dykstra, the store’s owner, told BuzzFeed News: “This was something that one of my friends posted and I certainly had no idea of the validity of any of it.
“I would repost a funny meme or anything else. I definitely would never try to mislead anyone, just maybe brighten someone’s day based upon hoping for some good news.”
Dykstra sent BuzzFeed News a link to a webpage which even included sources for each point in this list.
Most of these sources are valid news sites and more or less substantiate the claims.
But many of the points lack vital context and give a misleading overall picture, and because of this, is more likely to go viral than something flagrantly fake that is easier to debunk. This sort of misleading information is more subtle.
For example, it is true that Israeli scientists announced a breakthrough in the development of a vaccine.
However, “the development process requires a series of tests and experiments that may last many months before the vaccination is deemed effective or safe to use,” according to Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper that reported on this.
Most people do not have medical or scientific training so are not equipped to assess how likely, or how quickly, a small-scale trial might develop a genuine global vaccine or treatment for the deadly virus, says Claire Wardle.
So while it is also true that a San Diego biotech company is working on a vaccine — like many other labs around the world — the list neglects to mention that vaccines generally require at least a year of testing to make sure they are safe.
Some of the other items in the list are factually accurate but provide a distorted view of the global pandemic.
It has been reported that one patient in Tulsa County recovered from the virus – just as patients are recovering all around the world.
But this one single case in Oklahoma presented as “good news” seems rather minor considering the massive death tolls racking up around the world which are increasing every day.
Facebook says it is removing harmful misinformation relating to coronavirus from its platform.
“It’s not misinformation but it’s just a tiny kernel truth of being that’s been exaggerated, and it’s misleading,” said Wardle.
The list format is particularly tricky because often one or two misleading claims are snuck in alongside several that aren’t misleading at all. A list also gives the impression of a comprehensive overall picture despite being very selective.
BuzzFeed News first became aware of this “positive news” list via multiple messages forwarded on WhatsApp.
It is impossible to tell how much reach the story has on the platform, or where it originated, because WhatsApp is an encrypted platform which gives very little access to journalists and researchers.
On Facebook things are easier to trace — after being posted by lots of smaller Facebook pages and accounts on March 15 and 16, some big ones picked it up and the post seriously took off.
On March 17 and 18 much bigger accounts started sharing the post, and turned what was a minor meme on a few American Facebook walls into a global viral hit.
These accounts include the page of Julian Lennon, a British singer and son of the Beatle John Lennon, the “Aussie As” page devoted to “funny” content about Australia, and a doctor based in California.
The post was also translated into other languages for example on the page “We Hack To Protect Bangladesh” which has 1.4m likes.
The post was frequently tweaked as it was copy and pasted across different pages, groups and in different languages; for example, this version mentions that three patients have recovered in Bangladesh.
The post was also given a big boost on Instagram on March 17 by accounts including English model Jodie Kidd and Lindsay Matway, an American fitness influencer.
People are more likely to share things that make them feel emotional, and usually with a global pandemic those emotions are fear or panic.
But happiness is a powerful emotion too, and people are desperate to share positive news about coronavirus in these turbulent times.
“We weren’t trying to mislead anyone,” says Manny Singh, the administrator of a Facebook page dedicated to Scottish independence who posted one viral version of the list.
“What we were trying to do is give people hope in the current situation.”