A penguin on the western Antarctic peninsula in 2016

No, penguins don't live on an island of plastic waste. It was an April Fool's stunt

Copyright AFP 2017-2022. All rights reserved.

A video condemning the harmful effects of plastic waste on penguins has gone viral, being shared more than 80,000 times. But the original video was an April Fool's stunt created by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Many people were horrified to see an online video of a penguin colony living on an island made of plastic waste. The images, which had been doctored, rapidly went viral.

The video was originally posted by the Swiss branch of the WWF, an NGO campaigning to conserve nature and promote biodiversity. It was an elaborate fake aimed at increasing awareness of the pollution of oceans on April Fool's Day 2018.

Although the original was viewed only 40,000 times, the video went viral on social networks with some sites taking it out of the original context.

It has been viewed more than 3 million times on Facebook and shared more than 80,000 times. It appeared on three very popular pages: Yachting World magazine, and conservation sites EcoWatch and IBanPlastic.

An Asian branch of the United Nations also shared a still from the video.

A video taken out of context and then widely shared

The original video, which was published on YouTube, appeared to be serious. The WWF caption read : "Incredible. Researchers have found penguins nesting on a pile of plastic waste for the first time." They even launched a hashtag, #penguinsonplastic, to condemn the phenomenon. The hoax was revealed if a user clicked on a link to the organisation's site. But numerous accounts shared the news without reading the explanation and the video spread.

The group tried to stop the video spreading out of context. "On the same day, on the same pages, we stated that it was an April Fool. It was clear to us that we hadn't sought to manipulate anyone," the WWF said in a statement. It later removed the first Facebook post and tweeted to remind people that the video had been doctored. But few users shared the explanation.

This is a translation of their tweet, highlighted below:

Our penguin video this morning was an April Fool's stunt. Unfortunately what isn't a joke is that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. 

The WWF made an April Fool's joke the previous year that was clearly a joke. It condemned the hunt for unicorns, to draw attention to the real problem of rhinos being hunted for their horns in AfricaIt sought to alert people to ocean pollution with a similar stunt. "The aim was to attract attention to the continents of plastic which are polluting the oceans and are a scourge for marine life," the WWF said.

The fact that the problem is real probably explains why the hoax seemed plausible and grew so much on social networks.

As far as we know there are no penguin colonies living on a pile of waste, but there are massive amounts of plastic floating on the oceans and just under their surface. The largest, between Hawaii and California, covers some 1.6 million km2, which is bigger than many countries. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is made up of some 80,000 tonnes of ocean plastic, according to a study published in Scientific Reports