I think we can all agree that there is a spectacular amount of bad information drifting around on the Internet.
Actually, I shouldn't say "drifting," because that implies a motionless sort of shift and spread at the whim of nature. Passive voice is a terrible way to talk about the spread of disinformation, because the only way half-truths and mistruths and non-truths are able to proliferate is that nice people like you and me see them and decide to believe them and then actively make the deliberate choice to share them and thereby amplify the lie.
Disease spreads. Lies get spread. There's a difference.
Of all the various made-up stories related to coronavirus, the one that has gotten furthest under my skin is the one about this poem everyone keeps using as a Facebook status update.
The poem itself is not the lie. But I keep seeing it presented with some version of this story: The poem was published in 1869 by an Irish poet named Kathleen O'Meara (or O'Mara). It was written about a cholera epidemic and reprinted in 1918 (or 1919) during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
There's only one little tiny problem with this story, which I usually see posted alongside some kind of observation about the repetitive nature of history and/or the breathless introduction "Came across this! Resharing":
It's 100 percent false. Or, like... at least 95 percent false.
Forgive me as I prepare to ruin the fairy tale for everyone.
Let's start with two things that are true: There was an Irish-born writer named Kathleen O'Meara who was alive in 1869, although she wrote novels and biographies, not poems. And this poem, the one your kindergarten teacher has as her Facebook header, was written about a pandemic... but we'll get back to that.
Now for the part when I ruin all the fun: This poem was not written in 1869. The mid-nineteenth century was the age of movements like the late Romantics and the pre-Raphaelites — folks like Rossetti and Tennyson who loved rhyming couplets. Even Americans like Walt Whitman, who was considered edgy AF, and transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau weren't writing anything that looks or sounds like the butterfly-bedecked feel-good anthem you keep seeing in your Instagram stories.
(Someone please forward this to the English faculty at the University of Portland so they know I was actually paying attention.)
I get it. It's a lovely idea, the thought that we're being inspired by a poem that has inspired people during days of pandemics long gone by. But let's pause for just an instant and critically weigh the idea that an Irish poet in 1869 would be getting famous writing free verse about "exercising" and "playing games" and meditating and dancing while the earth "healed." In contemporary prose poetry. At a time when industrialization (and, consequently, pollution) was largely limited to urban areas. In a country that was (a) still recovering from a period during which it lost half of its population (and most of the remaining speakers of its native language) to famine or emigration and (b) starting to agitate for its independence from the United Kingdom. "Stay home and hug each other while the earth heals" wasn't really a mood for the times. (Not to mention that meditation didn't become mainstream in the West until the 20th century.)
So. If it wasn't written by a plucky Irish poet trying to stay cheery during a cholera outbreak, what's the true story?
Well, if you think this poem sounds like it was written by a nice lady from Wisconsin, guess what? You are correct.
Kitty O'Meara (not to be confused with the late Irish-French biographer) lives outside Madison. As in, she lives there, alive, today in 2020, not in 1869. She wrote her poem, "In The Time Of Pandemic," about covid-19, and shared it on Facebook, and then it blew up and here she is talking about it on Oprah.com. Here is a link to her blog. And here is a Snopes article debunking the 1869 story.
How do we get from "woman writes viral Internet poem" to "made-up story about a poem from 2020 being beloved in 1869 and 1918"? I don't know. Maybe it's Russian trolls. Maybe it's people who are just enterprising enough to Google "Kitty O'Meara" and just lazy enough to pick the first result and run with it and just creative enough to connect some imaginary dots on their own. Maybe it's someone needing content for their weird Facebook page about niche organic supplements and making up a romantic little story that accidentally blows up. Where do any of these phony memes come from?
What I'm concerned with is how they spread. It's easy to read something, find it compelling or diverting, and click "share." Fact-checking adds a step (especially if you fact-check and then spend an entire morning writing a newsletter obsessing about it while your children toss Kinetic Sand all over your dining room). But if I learned anything from Madonna's brief flirtation with writing children's books, it's that the "share" button is a pillow full of feathers that you can never completely clean up if you scatter them into the wind. Nobody I know shares these posts maliciously, but once they've been shared, it's impossible to control how far the fiction will spread.
Why does it matter? you might be thinking. It's a harmless little story about a sweet little poem. So what if people share it?
Two things. One, truth matters. In this particular instance I'm probably personally over-invested, but in general, I think that facts matter, and things that aren't true but are unquestioningly presented as true just really make me crazy. And I think most people don't really care to be party to the spread of disinformation, even if it's just for fun.
Two... OK, so today it's just a harmless little story about a sweet little poem (although I'd also argue that it's not harmless because it means the extremely not dead and very much alive poet isn't being properly credited for her work). But that read-click-share mechanism can quickly become habit. In fact, that very tendency is exactly what was exploited by Russia during the 2016 presidential election. When we get in the habit of sharing things presented as fact without checking to see if the facts actually add up, we increase the likelihood that we'll eventually share information that is false and also not at all harmless.
And those shares do have an impact. When I saw my first (but not my last!) post about the "history" of this poem and started looking for answers, I Googled "kathleen o'mara poem" and the first two pages of results were full of links to sites and bulletin board posts where the 1869 story had been repeated as fact. The more people who repeat that story, the more places there are on the Internet that appear to verify it... even though there's barely a shred of truth to it. So the next person to come along and be like "WTF was a 19th century Irish poet doing writing Gin Blossoms lyrics about meditation while the planet goes through a rinse cycle" might Google it, glance through the first page of results (literally almost nobody goes past the first page unless they're really working overtime), and think they've done their due diligence.
Want to get a good sense of just how much "harmless" fake content there is circulating out there? Check out HoaxEye, or better yet, follow them on Twitter. You'll be shocked to see just how much phony nonsense is popping up in the world's social feeds, some of it seemingly harmless but all of it part of the bigger problem of presenting fiction as fact.
What's a decent person to do?
Well, I hate to say it, but in these days of information-delivery-by-meme, you gotta do what journalists do: Question everything. Even things that I say in this newsletter! Some of you don't know me in real life. Do you know for sure that I'm not writing this newsletter from a troll farm? That's why I include links to reputable sites when I really want you to believe something. Rely on trusted news sources. And I can't believe this needs to be said, but based on the number of people who I know to be well-meaning and intelligent who also share these kinds of posts, it does: Memes are not reliable news sources. Especially if they're sharing information that's presented with zero verifiable attribution.
TL;DR: Fun facts are sometimes more "fun" than "fact." Protect your reputation as a source of 100-emoji content by checking your sources before you hit "share."
Bonus: Here's a quick and dirty guide to sharing posts on social media without contributing to the spread of fiction!
Level 1: Definitely at least fact-check, but still probably don't share because even if it's true it gets people used to taking things at face value:
- Memes or posts that claim to contain factual information but don't cite any sources
- "Incredible" photos and videos that seem too amazing to be true
- Actually, anything that seems too good to be true (I'm looking at you, everyone who shares those travel giveaway scams) unless you've 100% verified that it is for realskies
Level B: OK to share, and in fact please definitely do share:
- Factual articles from reputable news sources
- Links to primary sources (government documents, research papers, official websites)
- Opinion pieces and analyses from trustworthy sources as long as they are clearly labeled "opinion" or "analysis"
- Hilarious memes that don't claim to contain any facts but may possibly contain dry observations about daily life and/or sick burns that sting even as they make you feel extremely seen
- YouTube videos of epic skateboard fails
- Photos of your dog
Level Gold: Best to share, and tag me when you do so I don't miss them:
- "Schitt's Creek" outtakes
- Videos of animals touring closed aquariums and zoos
- Weird threads from the Am I The Asshole? subreddit