YOU’VE SEEN THIS type of video in your News Feed countless times: generically peppy music, chunky-letter captions, and claims of a breakthrough medical discovery that, if you bother to watch closely, sound just a bit off. The latest entrant in the genre, though, comes with a twist. Rather than spread junk science, it uses those same tropes to combat it.
“This NATURAL TRICK can CURE YOUR CANCER,” blares the title of the two-minute video from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. It tells viewers that an “amazing cure for cancer has been known since the 1800s,” but has been held back by the pharmaceutical industry. The treatment? A species of moss called Funariidae karkinolytae, discovered in 1816 by a scientist named Johan R. Tarjany. A molecule produced by the moss could “selectively alter the double helix of cancer cell DNA.”
All of this is fiction, wrapped in the same conspiratorial gauze as countless other viral pseudoscience clips—but the McGill OSS video cops to it just 40 seconds in. “There is no Dr. Tarjany,” the same bold type admits. “Johan R. Tarjany is an anagram of Jonathan Jarry, the guy who made this video.” The video then points out a series of red flags it had planted along the way—DNA wasn’t discovered to have a double helix shape until 1953, photographs of two different men were used to represent Tarjany, not to mention photography itself was in its nascency then, and so on—and tears down a few more science video cliches before pivoting to the real message: “Be skeptical. Ask questions.”
It’s a point Jarry and his colleagues at McGill OSS make daily, through various writings, videos, and interviews. Its tagline, after all, is “Separating Sense from Nonsense.” But a typical video on the group’s YouTube page lands in the ballpark of 700 views. As of Monday, its send-up of bad science had well over 7 million views across Facebook and Twitter, making it every bit as viral as the videos it hopes to counter.
In fact, the McGill video owes its existence in part to an exemplar of the genre. “A former coworker of mine sent me a very similar looking video, which professed that there was a cancer cure discovered by a guy about 80 years ago, which has to do with the vibration of cancer-causing viruses,” Jarry says. “What was particularly exasperating to me is that the video had over 6 million views, and this was one of many such videos that espouse this conspiracy mindset.”
Jarry channeled that exasperation into inspiration, putting together a “type of Trojan horse,” as he calls it, over the course of a day and a half at the end of June. He stuffed it with tells like the DNA and photography—historical inaccuracies both to tip off careful viewers, and to nudge passive eyeballs to pay closer attention.
“All of these clues were there to show just how easy it is to make unsubstantiated claims, and just lie in a video like this, and a lot of people aren’t going to notice it,” Jarry says. “It’s very easy to fall for these lies if you’re not paying attention."
'I think the McGill video worked because it mimics misleading and predatory health claim videos, down to the mediocre production values and the fonts.'
Even a convincing pseudoscience parody would have its cover blown coming from an official McGill account. So Jarry seeded it to prominent skeptics like David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and outspoken critic of alternative medicine and the anti-vaccination movement, and Susan Gerbic, founder of the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project, which actively monitors paranormal and pseudoscientific pages for unsourced claims. He also wrangled science writer Kavin Senapathy and HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky. All of them shared the video directly from their Twitter of Facebook accounts on June 30. The response was immediate.
The post to Senapathy’s Facebook page alone has garnered 1.7 million views. Rogowsky scored more than 1,000 retweets off of it. When McGill OSS itself finally shared the video, it chalked up 3.1 million views in less than a week. There’s a decent chance you’ve come across it yourself.
“In retrospect, I think the McGill video worked because it mimics misleading and predatory health claim videos, down to the mediocre production values and the fonts, because it's short and easy to watch, and the twist at the end catches viewers off guard,” Senapathy says. She also notes that it appears to have benefited from the vagaries of Facebook’s algorithm—which may well have mistaken the McGill video for one of those it sends up.
The same appears to go for many Facebook viewers; the comments tend to consist of people pointing out the scientific and historical impossibilities at the beginning of the video, followed by scattered admonishments that those first people watch to the end. The video has also drawn more earnest criticism. “People who have cancer, and their families, need hope. They need to know that they’re doing everything they can, even if it means adding a silly algae to their diet,” writes one commenter. “This approach is insensitive, tone deaf, and unnecessary to make your point about people needing to be more critical.”
But Jarry counters that his targets aren’t anywhere near innocuous. “I think there’s genuine harm that can be done with videos that purport to claim that there is a cancer cure and that big pharma is hiding it from you. There is a harm to this. You’ve giving people unfounded hope,” Jarry says. “The harm can be financial. The harm can be side effects that somebody doesn’t need to go through, because there’s no benefit at the end of it.”
The better question might be whether the McGill video has reached its intended audience of those who would normally watch a pseudoscience video without thinking critically about it. Putting it on the social media accounts of prominent skeptics has a hint of preaching to the choir.
Still, the odds seem good that at least some of those 7 million viewers learned something. “My page has around 35,000 followers, so even if the 29,000 who shared the video were active misinformation debunkers, I'm guessing that their friends lists aren't all debunkers too,” Senapathy says. If nothing else, the viral success of “This NATURAL TRICK can CURE YOUR CANCER” has driven traffic to McGill OSS’s more straightforward offerings.
McGill OSS may try to add more punchy videos like this one to its arsenal, but only sparingly, and not for several months. It took off this time, like the bad science it skewers, but that’s likely thanks to chance as much as reverse-engineering. “If anyone could predict virality,” Jarry says, “they’d be rich.”