Seventy years ago (give or take), my mum and her sister walked into the kitchen for breakfast to find the radio blasting and their dad sitting on the floor with a paper bag over his head.
Turned out, he was listening to the radio about how to save yourself from nuclear fallout.
Granddad had been carefully following the instructions as the radio announcer delivered them, diligently practising what he needed to know to keep his family safe.
At this point in the story, Mum and my auntie would double over laughing, hugging their sides and cry-gasping through their giggles.
That day was was April 1. Granddad (like hundreds of others) had fallen for the “fool”.
Granddad wasn’t happy.
No real harm had been done.
Fast-forward to 2020 and our Covid-19 crisis – human nature hasn’t changed.
True, we want to keep ourselves and our families safe.
Also true, misinformation can make a fool of any one of us.
Nowadays we know you can’t protect yourself from nuclear fallout by putting a paper bag over your head. In the early 1950s, it wasn’t so clear.
Of-the-era advice included shutting windows, crawling under tables and – wait for it – hiding behind hay bales for protection.
Whatever made people feel better in the face of certain death, right?
This time it’s different.
We’ve got meaningful and useful Covid-19 advice.
We’ve got some control over the spread of the virus.
In fact, for most of us, the virus doesn’t even threaten certain death.
Yet, ’50s-era-style un-science and mind-curdling but believable lies are dripping from social media like nuclear fallout itself.
When my grandfather fell for bunkum, he only risked egg on his face (well, that and the paper bag, of course).
Today, the spread of lies can cause death and it comes in two distinct forms.
The first kind includes quack cures and medicinal lies – the things that harm people directly or indirectly but are wrapped up like a real cure.
Stuff like, “breathe in the air from a hairdryer because heat kills the virus”.
Great. Let’s have kids with mouth burns, adults with itchy seared nasal passages and then expect them to keep their hands away from their face!
Stuff like, “drink hydrogen peroxide”, “methanol” or some other poison to kill the virus.
Awesome. Hospitals, overrun by Covid-19 patients, became inundated with poison cases in Iran, thanks to fake methanol cures being shared on social media (including blinded for life) and up to 300 dead.
Sharing medicinal lies causes real harm. That’s obvious, right?
Even when President Trump says it?
How about this .. Trump said hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine (antimalarial treatments) cure Covid-19. The US Food and Drug Administration said they didn’t. Meantime supplies evaporated for (among others) Lupus patients who need those drugs to help prevent organ damage.
Don’t get me started on injecting disinfectant. I have no words.
Yet, there’s worse.
Worse is when people think they’re virus-free or virus-safe when they are not.
This is the really dangerous stuff. In the movies, this is the contagion of the unsuspecting and the unforgiven. This is the annihilation of the good by the well-intentioned. This kind of misinformation is what haunts the annals of the walking dead.
Walking-dead advice puts people on to the streets, thinking “I’m OK, mate” while they silently spread the disease.
Walking-dead advice is stuff like you can make hand sanitiser from vodka.
Come on! Common sense says if you can drink it, it’s not likely to kill a virus. But in times of desperation, we like a bit of magical thinking (like putting a paper bag on our head), especially if it’s delivered by a trusted radio announcer (friend’s social media recipe).
Look, if it did work, I’m pretty sure the hospitals and the government would have commandeered supplies and put Joe’s “aloe vera vodka sanitiser” to work – with or without essential oils.
Walking-dead advice is stuff like taking 10 deep breaths in the morning will tell you if you have it.
Stop the bus. Who needs actual tests? Why bother actually testing?
We can just breath-test ourselves in the morning with some Les Mills calisthenics and go about our daily business as usual right?
Up until we can’t breathe.
Or Granddad can’t breathe.
Or that nice lady who played bridge with Granddad in the rest-home can’t breathe.
There’s no question that at times like this we’ll grasp at any straw of hope in the darkness.
My grandad, sitting on that floor with a paper bag on his head was duped by a trusted radio announcer on an April Fools’ Day morning.
He was a smart man, an engineer and a guy who would have done anything to protect his family.
We can all be taken in.
We know that staying at home saves lives. We know that washing our hands eliminates the chance of accidental contamination.
The internet equivalent of staying home is not sharing.
The internet equivalent of washing our hands is fact-checking. Twenty seconds and the contamination’s gone.
Now’s the time to take the paper bags off our heads and start facing up to responsible internetting.
Cute kitten videos notwithstanding.
- Cara Tipping Smith is the director of The Business Hive