During the lockdown in Venice and all over the world social media has been rife with news about wildlife returning to deserted streets and rivers.
Unfortunately, most of it is mistaken, made up, or falsified just to get “likes”. One post claimed the swans are returning to Venice’s canals in Italy.
In fact, swans are common in the canals of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon where the photos were taken—miles from Venice’s canals. Another post claimed that dolphins are coming back to Venice.
In fact, the photos of the dolphins were taken at the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea hundreds of miles from Venice. Even well-known outlets such as ABC News have picked up the false stories.
What is true, however, is that the water in Venice canals has become transparent enough to see the little fish that live there.
The canals of Venice are still as nasty as ever, filled with brackish water, a combination of fresh and saltwater, where human and chemical wastes flow along with the water.
The difference is that without the hundreds of boats that use the canals stirring up the sediments on the bottom, the water has become clearer.
According to ABC News, Pierpaolo Campostrini of the Consortium for Managing Scientific Research on the Venice Lagoon System confirms that the lack of boats is what makes the water transparent as there is less turbidity.
He also adds that the current temperature of the water, about fifty-seven degrees Fahrenheit, keeps plant synthesis from carbon dioxide in check. Once the water has warmed past sixty-two degrees, the synthesis will return.
National Geographic reports that New Delhi Twitter user, Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja, has tweeted the false wildlife claims even though she is nowhere near Venice.
She has repeatedly refused to remove her false stories claiming that she is trying to share something that made her happy—and that she doesn’t want to delete a tweet that has brought her over a million likes.
Other fake stories that have circulated on social media are about an orangutan named Sandra at the Center for Great Apes in Florida who appeared in a video washing her hands with sudsy water back in November.
The founder of the ape sanctuary, Patti Ragan, has taken the video down because so many people have added fake stories to it that Ragan claims she cannot control the original message which had nothing to do with COVID-19.
Another post claimed that ducks were showing up in Roman fountains since the lockdown; in reality, they have always been there. One of the more absurd posts claims that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has released five hundred lions onto the city streets of Moscow to keep violators of the lockdown in check.
There are several websites that give one the ability to trace where a picture came from including TinEye and Google. A complete guide to open-sourced fact-checking is Bellingcat whose owner, Eliot Higgins, was the one to call fake news on the swans that were supposedly swimming in the Venice canals.
Social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, Dr. Erin Vogel, remarks that when people on social media receive likes and positive comments it creates instant gratification and a boost to one’s self-esteem.
“In times when we’re all really lonely, it’s tempting to hold onto that feeling, especially if we’re posting something that gives people a lot of hope.”
She also cautions that when people find out these feel-good stories are untrue it can cause scepticism over important news and disappointment that is on a level far worse than the joy the story created. Vogel suggests it’s a great idea to post happy things on social media—just make sure it’s true.