Chapter 1: Contagious Information
CHAPTER 1 CONTAGIOUS INFORMATION
ON THE AFTERNOON of February 27, 2020, Peter Lee Goodchild, an 84-year-old retired art gallery owner from Buckinghamshire, England, posted a message on his Facebook page. “Last evening dining out with friends, one of their uncles, who’s graduated with a master’s degree and who worked in Shenzhen Hospital (Guangdong Province, China) sent him the following notes on Coronavirus for guidance…”
Peter’s Facebook post offered a friendly list of warnings and tips about a new coronavirus that had sprung up in China around Christmas 2019. The infection was quickly making its way around the world. “If someone sneezes with it, it takes about 10 feet before it drops to the ground and is no longer airborne,” wrote Peter, via his friend’s uncle.
A post containing all sorts of nonsense about the novel coronavirus went viral on Facebook in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: Snopes.com
Pictured is one version of the viral Facebook post that was shared in February 2020. The post “mutated” over time as it was updated, shared, and translated into dozens of languages.
Peter’s post included advice about swishing the throat with liquid to prevent infection: “A simple solution of salt in warm water will suffice,” he said. He included a timeline of the illness that said the virus “will first infect the throat, so you may have a sore throat lasting 3/4 days. The virus then blends into a nasal fluid that enters the trachea and then the lungs, causing pneumonia.”
Peter also issued this warning: “The nasal congestion is not like the normal kind. It can feel like you’re drowning.” There were even details about exactly how many hours this new virus could survive on metal and fabric, alongside advice to avoid ice-cold drinks.
Peter’s Facebook post was liked by his friends, who shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends… until it was shared more than 400,000 times in a matter of days. And that was just on Facebook.
A few days after Peter hit “post,” his Facebook message went from Buckinghamshire to Melbourne, from Hong Kong to Cape Town and beyond. Translated into Arabic, Spanish, French, Italian, Amharic—around a dozen languages in all—Peter’s list of tips and warnings popped up on websites, on internet message boards, and in private group chats from Bali to Bologna.
Peter’s virus post was read by millions of people all over the planet. Peter had gone viral.
The problem was this: Most of Peter’s viral message about the new virus was nonsense. Throat gargles don’t get rid of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Avoiding icy drinks won’t obliterate the infection. And had you asked any honest scientist back in February 2020 about the exact timeline of infection and how long the virus lingered on metals and fabrics, they would have said, “Umm, can I get back to you on that? We’re still trying to figure it out.”
But it didn’t matter that Peter’s message was mostly nonsense. A new disease was spreading, fear was brewing, and people were desperate for information. And here, right when we were ravenous for facts and figures, was a helpful post from a man whose Facebook profile photo showed a smiling, grandfatherly face.