How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation

Smithsonian folklorist James Deutsch says the fast spread of stories and memes are cultural expressions that build cohesion and support

Photo illustration
Folklorists remain alert to the culture (non-biological) of the coronavirus, even as we conduct our research while quarantined. Our research will certainly evolve as the pandemic itself evolves. Image collage by Elisa Hough

On the morning of March 16, I received an email from a colleague that contained an urgent warning of a pending COVID-19 nationwide quarantine: “Insider knowledge from one of my sons suggests a nationwide two-week, everything closes down, quarantine may be coming to be announced either tomorrow night or the night after. So go to the grocery store. A friend’s dad is in healthcare and met with the President.”

At the same time, similar messages were circulating widely in cyberspace. According to the fact-checking website Snopes.com, one typical version advised, “within 48 to 72 Hours the president will evoke what is called the Stafford act. Just got off the phone with some of my military friends down in D.C., who had a two-hour briefing. The president will order a two-week mandatory quarantine for the nation. Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two-week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.”

Read Our Guide on How to Avoid Misinformation About COVID-19

Receiving one of these messages may trigger much anxiety. However, seeing the messages as clusters is a call to apply the methods and interpretations of folklore. Folklorists do not equate folklore with materials that are necessarily false or fake; rather we believe that folklore is the lifeblood of various folk groups—be they based on geographic region, race or ethnicity, religion, occupation, gender, or age. Folklore is one of the best indicators for understanding these groups’ fundamental values and beliefs, including their concerns and anxieties.

How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation
As grim as much of this coronavirus folklore may be, folklorists also trace the humor shared among folk groups, especially in times of anxiety. Internet meme

A folkloristic analysis of the two messages above will recognize certain patterns and conventions that mark them as folklore:

  • The attribution to “a friend’s dad” and “some of my military friends,” who are what folklorists call FOAFs, or friends of a friend.
  • The similarities, such as the timeframe of 48 to 72 hours (“either tomorrow night or the night after”).
  • But also some differences. Folklore always appears with some slight variation because it never comes from a single authoritative source, but rather is transmitted more informally from person to person or group to group—nowadays often via text messages or social media.

Folklorists would classify these two messages as rumors because they provide plausible, unofficial information and because they emerge during a real-world situation of potential danger. Folklorists recognize the very real dangers of spreading misinformation, but we also understand how folklore functions for members of folk groups, especially when those groups feel threatened. Like all examples of folklore, rumors seek to inform and to build solidarity and cohesion among members of folk groups, as those groups seek to maintain their identity in the modern world.

How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation
In Bulgarian, the dog says, “It’s for your own good. You must stop touching your face.” Internet meme

A similar folkloric form is the legend, which folklorists define as a story believed to be true, which is always set in real time and in the real world. The difference between legends and rumors, as noted by psychologists Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia in their article on “Rumor, Gossip, and Urban Legends,” is that “Rumors are shorter, non-story-like bits of information without an established plot,” while legends “tend to be longer, with setting, plot, climax and denouement.” Legends also differ from myths, which as defined by folklorists, take place before the beginning of time and before the world, as we know it, was created.

Not surprisingly, legends are also emerging during the current coronavirus crisis. One that was shared on Publore, a listserv for public folklorists, is that criminal gangs are taking advantage of people trying to remain safe at home. They are sending crying children to residential homes; if the door opens—because who can resist a crying child—the gangs rush in to commit unspeakable mayhem—depending on the version. Folklorists recognize this legend as a variant on the “Baby Car Seat Lure,” in which criminals supposedly leave an infant’s car seat—usually with a blanket draped over it—by the side of the road to entice people—mostly women—to stop and get out of the cars. Like rumors, legends seek to inform—whether true or not—and to enhance cohesion, in part by warning members of the group about potential threats to their safety and well-being.

One of the folkloric genres that is especially relevant at this time is folk medicine, which includes folk remedies and cures to combat illnesses, especially when more conventional medicine has been ineffective. One such belief, debunked by the New York Post and New York Times, is that you can gargle with warm water and salt or vinegar to eliminate the coronavirus. Even one of the panelists on the March 21 NPR episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me cited a variant—albeit skeptically—in which gargling with hot water will supposedly force the virus into your stomach, where your stomach acid will kill it.

How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation
Another theme borrows from a poster and T-shirt that are popular in Indian Country, which uses a Native American perspective to reverse mainstream notions of homeland security and terrorism. Internet meme

While gargling saltwater won’t hurt you, studies show it won’t protect you either, especially if it’s in lieu of proven protective measures. Folk medicine typically operates in tandem with conventional medicine, but may be especially effective in validating and reinforcing the beliefs and conduct of a particular group, as indicated by recent research on American ginseng by Smithsonian folklorists.

As grim as much of this coronavirus folklore may be, folklorists also trace the humor shared among folk groups, especially in times of anxiety. According to the first sentence in “At Ease, Disease: AIDS Jokes as Sick Humor,” by the noted and highly provocative folklorist Alan Dundes, “Disasters breed jokes.” In this richly documented article, Dundes analyzes some of the gruesome folk humor that followed not only the 1986 explosion of the Challenger but that also accompanied the HIV/AIDS pandemic during the mid-1980s.

In perhaps similar fashion, coronavirus humor may help to relieve anxiety—in part by joking about such a serious, even taboo topic, build group solidarity, and even provide some entertainment, which is still another function of folklore. Not surprisingly, one consistent theme of humor borrows from the proliferation of online animal videos—in this case, dogs and cats adopting very human reactions to sneezing and coughing. Others deal with puns on Corona and the shortage of toilet paper.

How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation
Navajo artist and designer Eugene Tapahe notes that “humor is the best medicine; it got our ancestors through much, it will get us through more.” Internet meme

Another theme borrows from a poster and T-shirt that are popular in Indian Country, which uses a Native American perspective to reverse mainstream notions of homeland security and terrorism. From this same Indigenous perspective in the context of COVID-19, an image on Twitter notes that Native Americans have been “fighting viruses, plagues, pandemics, and invasive species since 1492.”

An article by Dalton Walker on Native responses to the coronavirus threat includes this image with an observation by Navajo artist and designer Eugene Tapahe that “Humor is the best medicine; it got our ancestors through much, it will get us through more.”

In the meantime, folklorists remain alert to the culture (non-biological) of the coronavirus, even as we conduct our research in isolation. Our research will certainly evolve as the pandemic itself evolves. But one of our primary concerns will remain constant: to better understand how our cultural expressions—be they stories, customs, text messages, or memes—may function as folklore—by informing, by validating and reinforcing the beliefs and conduct of a particular group, by building solidary and cohesion among members of that group, and even by providing some entertainment at this vitally serious moment in world history.

A version of this story appeared in the online publication of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.