Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP, Getty
Photograph by Andrea Pattaro, AFP, Getty

Why do people want so badly to believe this fake story is true?

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The most widely read story on our website last week was about the fake animal stories going viral on social media—the dolphins supposedly in Venetian canals and the elephants purportedly making themselves at home in a town in China, getting drunk on corn wine. (Pictured above: a real “dolphin-free” canal in Venice.)

We’re all desperate to find the light in a crisis.

Most of our readers on Facebook talking about the story were glad to learn the truth. Spreading something that’s not true—whether it’s as small as a positive story about animals or as consequential as an unproven cure for COVID-19—can make people feel even more distrustful during a time of vulnerability, social psychologist Erin Vogel told Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly.

It’s not that surprising, then, that some readers were angry at us for debunking these photos. More than a few actually. “Wow. This is so like telling your kid ‘Santa isn’t real’ right after the child happily sat on Santa's lap in the mall,” one person posted on Facebook.

Another: “Shame on you Nat Geo! You should've let us all believe the lies that brought a little bit of sunshine to our hearts in these dark times.”

In our defense, we shared a bunch of true positive animal stories at the same time, so as not to leave you all totally hopeless. (Try this, this, or this.)

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The point is that we’re a fact-driven, science-based publication. Telling the truth is our business.

We still appreciate some good sarcasm though. Some of the Facebook commenters nailed it:

Jesse L.: “I saw a mammoth in the woods the other day. It’s really great to see they’re making a return, really great.”
Tim H.: “I saw a Velociraptor yesterday. She was solving a Rubik's cube.”
Andrew F.: “My cats and dogs grew opposable thumbs during quarantine, and now they like to play chamber music.”

And humor site The Onion poked fun at the viral phenomenon with a satire piece about thousands of formerly endangered white rhinos flooding New York City.

Readers, I have a request: Please do keep sharing things that lift your spirits! Just make sure they’re true.

(To evaluate the veracity of a story, check out FactCheck.org’s thorough how-to guide. We’ve also got tips on finding the source of photos at the end of this viral animal photos story.)
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