As concerns over novel coronavirus strain COVID-19 crested in mid-March 2020, comparisons between the effects of the strain versus that of H1N1 (or “swine flu”) more than a decade before triggered a flurry of fact checks, a Facebook flag on the memes, and exacerbated distrust in the efficacy of Facebook’s fact-checking program.
Although several memes circulated, the two-level nature of the claims unwittingly exposed the limitations of Facebook fact-check flags. We collected several, which all contained roughly the same information and claims. We’ve broken them down into statistic-related facts versus unverifiable opinion:
- [Verifiable/fact-based] 12,000 (or 12,469) Americans died of H1N1/swine flu in 2009;
- [Verifiable/fact-based] 275,000 Americans were hospitalized due to H1N1 in the 2009 outbreak;
- [Unverifiable/opinion] A high rate of death and/or spread of H1N1 was due to handling of the outbreak by the Obama administration.
We examined the first two claims above. Although an argument could be made that the third was verifiable or otherwise form the basis of a fact-check, reception of subsequent fact-checks on the claims informed our decision to separate the two.
A March 13 2020 tweet showed one iteration of the claims:
— FactRage (@FactRage) March 13, 2020
That user tweeted an image, which read:
US cases: 164
US deaths: 11
Panic Level: Mass hysteria
US Cases: 60.8 million
US Deaths: 12,469
Panic Level: Totally chill
Do you all see how the media can manipulate your life?
The secondary claim we are not addressing here held that the media was responsible for grossly overemphasizing the risks posed by COVID-19, especially when comparing it to the H1N1 epidemic during United States President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009.
It is important to bear in mind that novel coronavirus or COVID-19 is not exclusive to the United States. The World Health Organization declared the strain a pandemic in March 2020. “The media” as described in the tweet could not possibly influence the decisions of public health officials in every affected country.
When that was put aside, we were left with four relevant figures, two of which had to do with COVID-19. If the numbers were ever accurate, they were certainly outdated by March 13 2020. Given that fact-checks of the meme dated back several days, we excluded that claim from this fact check and were left with two statistics:
- 60.8 million Americans contracted H1N1 or swine flu during that outbreak;
- 12,469 Americans died of H1N1 or swine flu during President Obama’s administration.
Another version we saw appeared with an image of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh and was shared on March 12 2020. The post was flagged with a Facebook warning for users who clicked through:
Underneath the flag and alongside a status update (“Tell me the Hysteria isn’t political!”), the post read:
[“]60 million Americans were infected with Swine Flu resulting in 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths. No media panic, no trashing of President Barack Obama and no travel ban. You don’t even remember it.” – Rush Limbaugh
Again, several statements were subjective or pure opinion, such as:
- “No media panic”;
- “No trashing of President Obama”;
- “You don’t even remember it.”
Obviously, the latter was immediately disproved by the memes’ circulation — all memes referenced H1N1, and clearly people remembered the outbreak. We might even hazard a guess that people — perhaps even Rush Limbaugh — “trashed” Obama during the outbreak, but there were other figures speaking to the meme’s credibility:
- 60 million Americans infected;
- 274,304 hospitalized;
- 12,469 fatalities.
That meme was flagged, which looked like this:
A fact-check from LeadStories.com was appended under the flag. That was also the case for yet another version of the meme posted on the same day (March 12 2020) to a Facebook group for fans of both Disney parks and President Trump.
In that iteration, the flaws in Facebook’s use of the flag became clearer. The original post was a share of the following meme (which was labeled “partly false” via flag) alongside a link to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) page on H1N1 with the following commentary:
This is all facts. But it’s blocking it! How scary. Here are the facts from CDC. This is scary how they try to hide the truth.
Further complicating matters was the fact that clicking through to the LeadStories.com page did not work. Several commenters also reported being unable to click through. We visited the LeadStories site and located the page, but not every user would do that — further undermining the credibility of such flags.
We uncovered the meme in this screenshot for visibility:
Across an image of United States President Barack Obama with a finger to his lips, text read:
12000 DIED OF H1N1 IN 2009 UNDER OBAMA WITH 275000 HOSPITALIZED
DO YOU RECALL THE MEDIA BLAMING OBAMA AS THEY ARE PRESIDENT TRUMP ABOUT 26 DEATHS FROM CORONA VIRUS?
Commenters were clearly confused by the “partly false” flag “blocking” the content, but juxtaposed with a link to the CDC matching the numbers:
Commenters objected to the numbers in the meme being marked false, writing:
“And FB fact checkers strike again. Thank you for posting the link to the CDC. Now we know FB is biased.”
“The left is all in on this. Everyone who is closing/cancelling are either never Trumpers or straight up Trump haters…. They’ve been trying to tank the economy for the past two+ years… problem for them…. in 6 months the only thing anyone will remember, how much god damn toilet paper they still have… lol”
In additional comments, users speculated the non-working LeadStories.com link was to conceal the content of fact-checking related to the meme:
“When I tried to follow the fact check link, it wasn’t available. I’m sure they really just disagreeing with a minor statement.”
“Checked by independent fact checkers under the Obama administration.”
Once again, the meme made a combination of subjective or opinion claims and verifiable statistics. Like the others, this meme maintained:
- 275,000 Americans were hospitalized due to H1N1;
- 12,469 died of H1N1;
- The media did not blame President Obama for his handling of the outbreak.
As noted above, we managed to access LeadStories.com’s fact check, which was published on March 12 2020. That post included a similar, but not identical, version of the iteration linked above from Twitter, and it linked to a since-deleted Facebook post. That deleted Facebook post was followed by an archived link, which did not work. A screenshot was mentioned, but we were unable to see a screenshot.
That quoted material involved a slightly different figure for US deaths of H1N1.
US cases: 164
US deaths: 11
Panic Level: Mass hysteria
US Cases: 60.8 million
US Deaths: 22,469
Panic Level: Totally chill
NBC News February 12, 2010: “Swine flu sickened 57 million Americans”.
We searched Twitter for the number “22,469,” and it did frequently appear in similar tweets. However, since the iterations we found exclusively cited the 12,000 or 12,469 number of deaths, that is the number we are including in our own fact-check here. And again, whether or not the media treated Obama better than Trump or vice versa was largely subjective in the scope of these memes and this fact-check. Clearly, grouping the claims together only led to confusion among Facebook users, some of whom saw fact-check flags with “partly false” ratings juxtaposed with what appeared to be official statistics.
The third meme from the Disney/Trump group claimed that 12,000 Americans died and 275,000 were hospitalized due to H1N1. The user linked a CDC page on H1N1 with final statistics from 2011, which reported:
During the pandemic, CDC provided estimates of the numbers of 2009 H1N1 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on seven different occasions. Final estimates were published in 2011. These final estimates were that from April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010 approximately 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (8868-18,306) occurred in the United States due to pH1N1.
In 2010, the CDC was still estimating the number of deaths, hospitalizations, and infections. Several revisions and ranges were included, among them:
Updated Estimates from April 2009 – February 13, 2010
Using the same methodology CDC has again updated the estimates to include the time period from April 2009 through February 13, 2010 on March 12, 2010.
CDC estimates that between 42 million and 86 million cases of 2009 H1N1 occurred between April 2009 and February 13, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 59 million people infected with 2009 H1N1.
CDC estimates that between 188,000 and 389,000 H1N1-related hospitalizations occurred between April 2009 and February 13, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 265,000 2009 H1N1-related hospitalizations.
CDC estimates that between 8,520 and 17,620 2009 H1N1-related deaths occurred between April 2009 and February 13, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 12,000 2009 H1N1-related deaths.
In 2013, NBC News reported:
CDC says H1N1 infected 61 million Americans during the pandemic and killed around 12,000. H1N1 is now part of the annual seasonal flu mix.
Estimates compiled as of 2013 were down slightly from earlier estimates of as many as 17 million H1N1 deaths during the flu season of late 2009 and early 2010. A more recent CDC page on the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic (updated in June 2019) included the revised statistics:
From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus.
Again, memes were marked partly false based on two-level claims. One claim was that U.S. President Donald Trump was scrutinized more strongly than his predecessor, President Barack Obama, during respective pandemics — H1N1/swine flu in 2009, and COVID-19/coronavirus in 2020. That element of the claim was arguably subjective, but more importantly, the more math-based element of the claim caused broad confusion over fact-checks related to it.
The second part of the claim held that 12,000 or 12,469 Americans died of H1N1 during a 2009-2010 pandemic, that 60.8 million or 60 million Americans were sickened, and that 247,000 to 275,000 were hospitalized. All three claims appeared on all three memes in some form, and all three were accurate whether rounded or exact. In 2013, the CDC revised figures to the more precise and unrounded ones, and the memes accurately stated those figures as they appeared on CDC resources. Separating out only the figures, all three memes contained accurate figures for the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and 2010, but had the unforeseen effect of showing where Facebook’s methodology for utilizing fact-checkers was weakest.