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Muddy Waters

Looking for positive news in a polluted information environment during the COVID-19 pandemic

Background

As people across the globe self-isolate to reduce the spread of COVID-19, positive stories are few and far between. Given the grim news cycle, it is not surprising that when a tweet surfaced that seemed to offer a sliver of good news, it spread quickly.

 

On March 16th, 2020, twitter user @ikaveri tweeted: “Here’s an unexpected side effect of the pandemic  — the water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever [sic]. The fish are visible, the swans returned.” The tweet included four photos of clear canal water where fish and swans are visible. 


One week later, the
tweet had reached one million likes. Another twitter user’s response to the post also went viral as he offered his own take: Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.

 

 

As soon as the canal photos spread online, however, some began to scrutinize their veracity. This presented an opportunity for twitter user Eliot Higgins, a self-described “massive verification nerd.” Higgins took on the challenge of locating exactly where the pictures had been taken and documented his  process online. Using Google Maps, he was able to find exact locations that matched the photos. 

 

It turns out that the swan photos were taken in Burano, a small island in the greater Venice area where the birds are known to appear regularly. The original tweeter, @ikaveri lives in New Delhi, India and did not take the pictures, but added them to her tweet after seeing them on social media.

 

While the tweet may not be completely bogus, it misrepresents the truth. Canal water quality in Venice really has improved since the country went into lock down. But though the improvement appears to be dramatic, an environmental researcher notes that the key reason for the change isn’t reduced pollution so much as fewer motor boats churning up the muddy canal floor.

 

Despite acknowledging the information isn’t wholly accurate, the original tweeter declined to delete the tweet, though she did add that she wished Twitter had an edit option. 

Activity

  • Show students the original tweet and the response to the tweet, and let students know that there may be some issues with accuracy. Ask students why they think the tweet was shared so widely.
  • Show students the fact-checked information. Explain that the images of the swans were from a different town in Italy. 
  • Initiate a discussion about accuracy. Do students think it matters if these claims are not quite true? Why or why not?
  • Watch this CIVIX video about Information Pollution, and review the difference between ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation.’
  • Ask students if these tweets are a form of misinformation or disinformation.
  • Initiate a class discussion about why false uplifting stories might spread during moments of crisis (additional examples include a false story that dolphins were seen in Venice canals and a false story about drunken elephants in China)

Guiding Questions:

  • Why do you think stories like these spread during times of crisis? Why do you think so many people are willing to believe them and share them?
  • What are some of the possible consequences of sharing fake information, even if that information makes people feel good and wasn’t shared with the intent to cause harm?
  • What are some ways you can think of to spread positivity during a crisis that don’t involve spreading false information?

Glossary

Veracity: accuracy or correctness; truthfulness 

Additional Reading

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