A surprising narrative about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is spreading: that fears of the pandemic are overblown because in 1969, the Woodstock music festival was held during a flu pandemic.
The claim has been shared thousands of times via Facebook posts and memes. “Instead of shutting everything down, they held Woodstock,” one version of the meme reads.
As the majority of the country rides out the pandemic quarantined at home, web traffic has exploded, and with it online misinformation about the coronavirus. On Facebook viral content has been circulating, regardless of its truthfulness — like the misleading “Plandemic” video, which was viewed millions of times before it was taken down by the platform’s moderators last week.
And while the “Plandemic” video presented a conspiratorial worldview steeped in anti-vaccination and extremist tropes, the Woodstock/flu meme is something different: nostalgic and gauzy, although still inaccurate.
The meme argues that the current lockdown due to the current coronavirus pandemic is a product of the media spreading unnecessary fear and panic. Many iterations of it are followed by comments by those who were alive at the time about how Americans in 1968 and 1969 didn’t change their lives to deal with an influenza pandemic
The Woodstock narrative originated in a May 1 article titled “Woodstock Occurred in the Middle of a Pandemic” by the American Institute for Economic Research, a conservative research institute. In it, the AIER’s editorial director Jeffrey A. Tucker argued that in 1969, while an H3N2 strain of influenza sickened the planet, the economy did not shut down, and, for the 400,000 people who gathered at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York, there was some music.
“Nothing was closed by force. Schools mostly stayed open. Businesses did too. You could go to the movies. You could go to bars and restaurants,” Tucker wrote.
"If we used government lockdowns then like we use them now, Woodstock (which changed music forever and still resonates today) would never have occurred. How much prosperity, culture, tech, etc. are losing in this calamity?" he added.
Tucker’s piece, published on May 1, 2020, is now full of updates and corrections. The original version claimed that no schools had closed due to H3N2, which isn’t true — 23 states faced school and college closures. The original version also, most crucially, didn’t include the detail that the influenza pandemic started in 1968, came in two large seasonal waves during the winter months, and while it lasted until 1969, Woodstock happened in August, between the waves of the pandemic.
On May 7, the Reuters Fact Check team labeled the AIER article “misleading,” writing: “the Woodstock music festival took place months after the first season of the Hong Kong flu had ended in the United States. Although there was to be a second wave in the US the following winter, it is misleading to say it happened ‘in the middle of a pandemic.’”
Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen told BuzzFeed News that while there were some similarities between COVID-19 and H3N2, the most important difference was that the death rate during the 1968–1969 flu pandemic — 100,000 in the US — was totally different from COVID-19.
“That's basically the same number of deaths you get in a typical flu season in the US,” Rasmussen said. “We're on track to hit 100,000 deaths [from COVID-19] next week, if not the end of the month.”
But regardless of whether the comparison between the 1969 outbreak and the 2020 coronavirus is a fair one, the idea has spread on Facebook, particularly within right-wing groups and pages.
The Rabbit Hole, a right-wing Facebook page, was the biggest source of traffic to the AIER story, according to social metrics site CrowdTrangle.
“What we didn't do in the past was panic like a bunch of scared children and allow the government to ruin people's lives,” the page wrote. “Please read this article, it shows you the stupidity of what our Governments are doing right now."
The Rabbit Hole has over 100,000 likes on its page, which promotes misinformation about COVID-19, like the claim that masks can’t protect you from the virus.
AIER’s article also received a huge amount of traffic from right-wing news site CNSNews.com, which had a post about it shared almost 10,000 times.
Houston-based conservative radio talk show host Michael Berry shared the AIER article, writing on Facebook, “We didn't always destroy our economy, our life savings, our small businesses, our jobs, and everything we worked for because of pandemics.”
“It's almost like the debunking doesn't really have an effect. It makes people more inclined to believe it.”
“Is it coincidence that an America that has locked its children indoors because of media-hyped fear of the bogeyman is now locking itself indoors over fear of this virus?” asked one of Berry’s followers in the comment section.
As for how users can avoid falling for misleading or harmful information about COVID-19, Rasmussen said that many people who share misinformation tend to bristle when they are fact-checked.
“A lot of times when these types of ‘oh here's a new hot take on this’ articles come out and when they are debunked, the people really double down — the people who wrote them or people who are sharing them widely,” she said. “It's almost like the debunking doesn't really have an effect. It makes people more inclined to believe it.”
“We're starved for information that will allow us to take some actionable societal measures like, ‘let's reopen and have Woodstock because they did that in 1969 and everything was fine,’” Rasmussen said.