McGill University science communicator Jonathan Jarry (Louis Baudoin-Laarman)

Viral video claims secret to cure cancer; debunks fake science

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With claims of a secret cure for cancer hiding in plain sight, a fake video made by researchers in Canada has found a successful formula to get people to think critically about online health information, racking up more than 10 million views.

Featuring catchy techno beats, flashy animations and the clickbait headline, "This NATURAL TRICK can CURE YOUR CANCER" the video tells the story of a fictional moss that can kill cancer cells, Funariidae Karkinolytae, discovered in 1816 by a doctor named Johan R. Tarjany.

Viewers only learn at the end of the video that no such moss exists and neither does Dr Tarjany. The name is an anagram for Jonathan Jarry, the video's creator and a self-branded science communicator at the McGill University Office for Science and Society (OSS).

The purpose of the OSS is to help people understand "what is good science and what is quackery," when encountering scientific content online.

Jarry told AFP, "There's confusion as to who is an expert, who is a doctor, which sources of information can I trust?"

Jarry and his colleagues regularly make videos debunking fake science, but none had gone viral until he decided to try this new approach. 

"The kind of work we do at the office rarely gets the kind of traction that these easily shareable [fake] videos get on social media," Jarry explained. 

"I thought, 'I'll be very happy if we get 10,000 views' and we got over 10 million views (across platforms)," Jarry said.

Jarry told AFP he chose to make an imaginary moss the focus of this video because he finds that many fake science videos appeal to the "it's natural therefore it's good" fallacy.

"That’s not a good argument," Jarry added. "Scorpion venom is natural but I don’t want it in my body."

Jarry told AFP people should look for certain tactics prominent in fake science shared on social media. He cautioned skepticism for any report which relies on testimonies rather than empirical, tested research, or which touts the idea that if something has been done for many years it must work.

His fake video was originally uploaded in English and French. It has since been translated into Spanish by an online user and Jarry said other languages are planned.