Were you tricked this April Fools’ Day? Every year on 1 April, eyebrows are raised and suspicious heighten, as we take that extra moment of consideration when evaluating what we hear and see. Friends become untrustworthy, news sources become questionable, and the internet becomes a minefield of intentional deception as we’re left to fend for ourselves with only our judgment to guide us. This particular cynicism is well-founded, stemming from a nearly 500 year old history of practical jokes and hoaxes. April Fools’ Day represents the one day of the year where we tread lightly and consider mindfully before we accept what is presented in front of us.
But what about the rest of the year? For the vast majority of us, media outlets and the internet represent our primary sources of news and factual information. They’ve become familiar to us – we’ve learned to trust these sources and accept information without much thought towards its credibility. Take a moment to consider the last time you doubted a story on the 6:00 PM news. It’s not surprising that we have adapted to blindly consuming information, as long as we place trust in the source.
However, this mentality is fundamentally flawed. As consumers of information, we stand as the watchdogs that hold the source institutions accountable for the integrity of their content. The foundational principles of journalism are to report the truth and serve the people. In an ideal world, our media outlets would operate by these principles, but it is important to remember that news agencies are businesses, operating on financial and even political agendas. When we allow ourselves to submit to these institutions without considering the validity of their content, we are enabling the media to get away with reporting fallacies or hyperbolic information.
This is especially true in today’s world, where stiff competition exists between news and media sources to get stories out to the public as fast as possible. News is produced at such an incredible speed that compromises can often be made in fact checking or in providing a complete story, which can lead readers to draw false or extrapolative conclusions. Combine this with the current blind acceptance mentality, and it becomes very apparent how easily false information can be propagated.
Most people might consider themselves sensible enough to identify falsehoods when they arise. Here are a few examples to illustrate just how deeply acceptance at face value and gullibility are rooted in society. On 1 April, 1957, BBC aired a segment featuring “spaghetti trees”, showing housewives harvesting spaghetti from these plants, during a time period when spaghetti was still relatively foreign to most of the British population. Hundreds called or wrote in asking for tips on growing their own plant, convinced by words of the world’s oldest national broadcasting organisation. Many people automatically associate presented news with factual information. Such was also the case in 1938, when a radio adaptation of Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds broadcasted in news bulletin format caused mass hysteria, as many listeners took the narrated alien invasion as factual.
Less ridiculous to the modern eye, in 2014 internet tricksters managed to convince thousands that their iPhones could be charged by microwaving them, through the online circulation of authentic-looking posters. Similarly, iPhone users were led to believe that a new software update made their phones waterproof. After outrage poured onto the internet in the aftermath, “victims” were left with nobody to blame but themselves. No, these particular hoaxes were not launched on April Fools’ Day. If they were, perhaps people would have reconsidered. But if all it takes is a particular date on the calendar to separate healthy skepticism from credulity, then perhaps we as a society are more vulnerable than we think.
So far, the aforementioned examples have all been rather trivial. However, the lack of a critical outlook on presented information can have serious consequences. Following the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, internet users launched a massive “crowd-sourced” investigation over social media, falsely identifying 22-year old Sunil Tripathi as the standout suspect through images and video “evidence”. Despite there being no concrete evidence linking Tripathi to the attack, the story was quickly picked up by some news agencies and broadcasted or published as a potential lead. Another damaging incident occurred in 2013, when hackers managed to breach the Associated Press’ Twitter account, tweeting that explosions had occurred at the White House and that the president was hurt. In the few minutes that the tweet was up for, the Wall Street stock market dived by 150 points, before recovering. It is alarming to see how fast fallacies can spread in the absence of rational consideration.
It is incredibly ironic that April Fools’ Day is the one day of the year when people consciously decide to critically evaluate news reports and information. As the audience, we should instead maintain this healthy skepticism in our everyday lives. The propagation of misinformation is harmful, and blurs the lines between truth, falsehoods and opinion at alarmingly rapid rates. So the next time you pick up a newspaper, take a moment to consider if the information is more than what meets the eye. Maybe this editorial is lying to you too.
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