The Time Of C.O.V.I.D-1.9 ᴄʀɪsɪs
In November 2019, the Center for Great Apes, a Florida sanctuary, posted a playful video to YouTube of resident orangutan Sandra scrubbing her hands with sudsy water. Then, a couple weeks ago, staff thought it would be cute and relevant to re-share the video to Twitter.
From there, a social media game of broken telephone ensued. People grabbed the video and reposted it with their own captions, draining it of context and—perhaps inadvertently—twisting the message. The story transformed: Sandra started washing her hands, it was said, because she saw her keepers doing so repeatedly during the C.O.V.I.D-1.9 ᴄʀɪsɪs.
Patti Ragan, the center’s founder, removed the video from the sanctuary’s YouTube channel on April 2, despite receiving dozens of requests from media outlets to license the footage. Ragan says she doesn’t want people to mistakenly think the center is teaching tricks to Sandra—the first orangutan in the world to be legally declared a non-human person—or any of the apes. “I’m just very conscientious about protecting her dignity,” Ragan says. “I took it down because I can’t control the message.”
Nor can she do anything about the thousands of misleading tweets that are already out there.
The false stories keep popping up
Some have been absurd: Pᴜᴛɪɴ releasing 500 lions into Russian streets to keep people inside. It’s so fantastical that it shouldn’t need to be debunked, but the web mythbuster Snopes.com did so anyway. The photo that claimed to show a lion stalking a Russian street in fact was taken in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016 when a film production company let the big cat loose.
Others have been absurd: Ducks showing up in Roman fountains since the epidemic began got 28,000 upvotes on Reddit. In reality, the ducks are always there, commenters pointed out. Reddit moderators later removed the post.
False tweets about wildlife flourishing during the ᴘᴀɴᴅᴇᴍɪᴄ have spread in Iɴᴅɪᴀ in particular. A photo that claimed to show deer lounging on the side of a southern India highway was actually taken in Nara, Japan, years earlier. A tweet stating that “while people are at home, nature is taking a heavy breath” showed a video of peacocks walking outside a national park, poking through garbage. According to some locals, however, the birds are frequently outside the park.
And a video that got 10,000 retweets claiming to show a rare, ᴄʀɪᴛɪᴄᴀʟʟʏ ᴇɴᴅᴀɴɢᴇʀed Malabar civet strolling into a street in Kerala turned out to be of a common small Iɴᴅɪᴀ civet, an Iɴᴅɪᴀ Forest Service official later confirmed on Twitter. The animal might have been photographed after being released from captivity, the official wrote, noting that it looks quite sɪᴄᴋ.
Jennifer Dodd, an ecology and conservation professor at Edinburgh’s Napier University, jumped in on Twitter to point out exactly what the harm was. “Miscommunication leads to people becoming ᴅɪsʜᴇᴀʀᴛᴇɴᴇᴅ,” she wrote, “leading to apathy [and] ultimately a reversal in conservation engagement.”
In other words: If people feel tricked or foolish for believing in an inspiring animal-recovery story that turns out to be fake, they may lose interest in conservation.
The idea that animals can bounce back when humans retreat also “overestimates the speed of the recovery,” Dodd said in a telephone interview. “It’s marginalizing the active conservation required to reverse the impacts we’ve had on the Earth.”
David Steen, a conservation biologist and reptile and amphibian research leader at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Florida, echoes Dodd’s concerns. “Effective conservation efforts for many species now [require] intensive intervention, even in protected areas, and this work is not cheap,” he says. “I suspect that if most people thought all we had to do for species to recover is walk away, they may be less likely to support the work that actually needs to be done to keep them around.”