I remember the halcyon days when April Fools’ Day was a bit of harmless fun. We’d read fake stories from the newspaper over our cornflakes and have a good chuckle. Fake news was just something that happened once a year. But, those days are gone.
We are now living in the age of fake news; where mistruths are presented as truths, and believed at face value. Fake news is no longer a once-yearly event, it’s a 365-day-a-year news cycle. And, that’s why April Fools’ Day needs to die.
“April’s Fool Day is a day when you have to constantly engage the critical and sceptical part of the brain so you don’t get duped,” says Claire Wardle, Director of Research and Strategy of First Draft News. “Now that we are increasingly encountering information that has been fabricated, manipulated or is downright misleading, we need to be engaging those same parts of our brains every day and questioning what we’re seeing in our social feeds.”
This year, April Fools’ Day inconveniently falls on a Saturday, leading brands to start their pranks early in order to counter any potential dip in exposure. It has resulted in a week-long run-up to this godforsaken event.
For journalists, it has meant days of wading through a deluge of press releases about fake stories, most of which don’t contain a helpful April Fools’ Day disclaimer.
On Thursday, several major news outlets in the UK fell foul to a prank by Krispy Kreme. The doughnut brand claimed it would be changing its name to “Krispy Cream” because Brits didn’t know how to pronounce the word “Kreme”. “Krispy Kreme UK is getting a more ‘English-friendly’ name so people stop mispronouncing it,” declared a headline. “Krispy Kreme is changing its name here in the UK to stop people misspelling it,” said another. Oh dear.
Publishing prank stories to an unsuspecting audience on any day of the year, even April 1, just isn’t funny anymore. It’s no longer acceptable because fake stories are already in circulation on a daily basis with serious implications.
In some instances, fake stories are outperforming real news. In the three months before the presidential election, viral fake election news stories had such high engagement they actually outperformed real news on Facebook. During the most critical time of the election campaign, the 20 top-performing fake election stories generated 8.7 million engagements on Facebook — far outstripping the 7.3 million engagement garnered by mainstream news. Among the top-performing stories were headlines like “Hillary sold weapons to ISIS” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead”.
Since then, “fake news” has become ubiquitous and POTUS Donald Trump has appropriated the term to criticise media outlets:
By definition, fake news is false information masquerading as traditional news. It’s similar to propaganda because it distorts the truth for emotional persuasion. But the motivation behind fake news in the run-up to the US election wasn’t just political. Many creators of spoof stories were trying to make a quick buck from advertising on distributed content that was designed to gain a large audience. So, are brands using the excuse of April Fools’ Day to do the same thing?
“The same motivations drive the creators of fabricated stories and news sites. The unfortunate reality is that some people are using these same techniques on a daily basis to make money or to manipulate public opinion,” says Claire Wardle of First Draft News. “As consumers of information online we have to remain as alert on May, June and July 1 as we will be April 1.”
Some countries are taking a stand against April Fools’ Day because of fake news. Swedish and Norwegian newspapers announced Friday they wouldn’t be publishing April Fools’ jokes because they feared it would spread fake news. “We work with real news. Even on April 1st,” said Magnus Karlsson, editor-in-chief of Swedish newspaper Smålandsposten, adding that he did not want the newspaper to “be spread with a potentially viral and erroneous story”.
Other news outlets should take note. Thanks to the fake news phenomenon, April Fools’ jokes should be a thing of the past. Don’t add to the problem.
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