Canadian video debunking fake online health claims becomes viral hit

A Canadian science communicator wanted to show how people's emotions and desire for easy answers can be manipulated when it comes to science and health information. His fake video with a very real message now has millions of views.

Viral Facebook video promises easy answers but delivers hard lesson about critical thinking

Jonathan Jarry, with McGill University's Office for Science and Society, says he was frustrated that videos containing misleading and false information about health and science were so widely shared on social media, so he created a video of his own to remind people to be skeptical and ask hard questions about what they see. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

Jonathan Jarry's job is to separate sense from nonsense in science, but he never imagined that creating a fake news video would end up being his most effective tool.

Facebook users may be familiar with his latest video for McGill University's Office for Science and Society (OSS) — it has 10 million views and counting.

The video title screams for a click: "This NATURAL TRICK can CURE YOUR CANCER." The opening graphic offers another too-good-to-be-true promise: "This amazing cure for cancer has been known since the 1800s."

Fake doctor with too-good-to-be-true cure

The video tells the very fake story of Dr. Johan R. Tarjany, who in 1816 discovered a kind of moss that cures cancer,  knowledge the video claims has been suppressed by pharmaceutical companies.

The story gets better. Tarjany added the moss to his diet and never got cancer — and great news — even though the Food and Drug Administration has banned the moss, it's available online.

Just as you're reaching for your credit card, celebrating your discovery while simultaneously cursing big pharma, the tale unravels. Thirty-nine seconds into the video, the truth is revealed: The video that you thought promised an easy answer instead is a hard lesson in media literacy and critical thinking.

Dr. Johan R. Tarjany is an anagram of Jonathan Jarry. And those photos in the video, they're of Otto Maass, a former chairman of McGill's Chemistry Department in the early 20th century. To further his point, Jarry even used multiple photos of different people to see if viewers would notice.

Frustrated at bunk science

Jarry said the idea came from a similar video a former coworker had shown him. It had six million views and purported to show a researcher who had discovered radio signals that could kill cancer cells. 

"My idea was, OK well, what if we make a video that is a bit of a Trojan horse that kind of looks like one of those viral videos but that actually has a different spin on it," Jarry said.

He said it was frustrating because bunk science videos often reach far wider audiences than those his team puts together. On the McGill OSS YouTube page there a number of videos explaining topics like sloppy food science and personalized genetic testing, but the views rank in the hundreds and thousands, not millions.

"We don't sell these easy solutions to complicated problems," Jarry said. "We sell nuance and criticism and uncertainty, and that doesn't sell as well."

He says he's blown away by the success of this video.

"I am flabbergasted. I was hoping for 10,000 views. I would have been ecstatic at 10,000. It hasn't really sunk in yet. The fact that this has reached so many people."

Jarry created a fake news video to get people to think more critically about so-called scientific content online. (Jonathan Jarry/McGill University/YouTube)

He created the viral video in about a day and a half using stock footage and upbeat music to recreate the look and feel of a hoax health video. He says it appeals to people's sense that they're being lied to and that easy answers are out there.

"I think the conspiracy mindset is a big one. We're all wired to the thing that there are conspiracies here and there, and some people are more susceptible to this kind of thinking than others."

The video ends with a message to viewers: Be skeptical, ask questions, consult doctors and scientists, and don't fall for conspiracy theories dressed up in pretty packaging.

"Be skeptical because there's so much misinformation out there and be aware of your own biases. Be aware of the fact that you will be easily emotionally manipulated."

He says there's also an important lesson for science communicators about how best to deliver accurate, fact-based information and what the audience wants. 

Be aware of the fact that you will be easily emotionally manipulated- Jonathan Jarry, McGill University

"We are wired to respond to stories. We're storytellers at heart. Numbers don't speak to us," he said, adding that means we must be wary.

"So we all always have to be on the lookout for anecdotes, because they don't tell us much."

The video's popularity may only be starting. While the original was posted in English and French, a user has already translated it into Spanish. Jarry's team says they've received and are working on versions in Italian, Croatian, Spanish, even Hungarian.

And while his video has topped the six million views of the hoax video that inspired him, Jarry said there's still a long way to go to counter misinformation online.

"There are so many more of these videos out there that I don't think our video will solve the problem forever. I think we all need to approach this problem constantly and try different things to reach as many people as we can."


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.