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Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life

Bogus stories of wild animals flourishing in quarantined cities gives false hope—and viral fame.

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As the normally bustling canals of Venice became deserted amid pandemic quarantines, viral social media posts claimed swans and dolphins were returning to the waters. It wasn't true. The canal water, nonetheless, is clearer because of the decrease in boat activity.

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...

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