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,...