In the Age of Fake News, April Fools’ Day Gags Are Basic AF

Social Commentary

In the Age of Fake News, April Fools’ Day Gags Are Basic AF

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There are days that make you believe anything is possible. Sachin Tendulkar will come out of retirement to boost Mumbai Indians’ IPL chances, Kangana Ranaut and Hrithik Roshan will launch a production house together, and PM Modi will give a press conference. That day is April Fools’ Day, where news outlets blatantly indulge in an open relationship with the truth and carry fake stories to gull unsuspecting readers.

None of the news stories in the above paragraph are true, but why not have a little fun with the truth when everyone from respected journalists to brands is getting in on the action? It’s yet to be confirmed, but I suspect Rajdeep Sardesai’s announcement of a live debate between PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi on April 8 is one of this year’s pranks, as is Netflix’s announcement of a female-led remake of stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle starring Radhika Apte (who else?) and Constance Wu. These are the latest entrants in a long-established tradition of April Fools’ jokes.

The last time I fell for one of these pranks was in 2003, when Bombay Times reported that the result of that year’s ICC World Cup final was being overturned after it was discovered that the Australians had used springs in their bats to beat India. When I fell over myself in excitement announcing the news to my father, he smiled and explained to my 11-year-old self that I shouldn’t trust any news outlet on April 1 – and also that Bombay Times should not be trusted at any time of the year.

Who can forget the tall claims of the new ₹2,000 note being fitted with a special electronic chip that would allow its location to be traced via satellite?

However, what was a joke back then isn’t so funny anymore. We now live in the era of fake news, and instead of playing readers for fools, it’s the news outlets themselves that are made to look stupid, and not just on April 1. All year round, we have to treat reported “facts” with the same level of critical analysis as we would an unlikely headline on April Fools’ Day. As the internet reaches increasingly far-flung corners of India, mediums like Facebook and WhatsApp supplant traditional news sources. Journalists are no longer simply breaking stories, they’re also playing catch-up with the latest viral trends. And as unqualified sources replace accredited journalists who report after following due diligence, the likelihood of fake, unverified news making it to readers increases.

Who can forget the tall claims of the new ₹2,000 note being fitted with a special electronic chip that would allow its location to be traced via satellite? That rumour, Indian Express reported, was started by a spurious WhatsApp forward. That did not stop many media outlets from simply  accepting those claims and even analysing their veracity.

While the nano-chipped currency note is an all-time fake news classic, there have been plenty of instances in the last year itself that serve as proof that fake news in the Indian media isn’t going anywhere. A photo of a turbaned Congress worker touching former party president Sonia Gandhi’s feet from 2011 was circulated on social media with a caption claiming that it was actually Manmohan Singh or Navjot Singh Sidhu (depending on the source) paying obeisance.

Later in the year, a photo from Saudi Arabia was passed off as a shot of the impeccable arrangements for this year’s Kumbh Mela. Even the recently deceased were not safe from the spectre of fake news, as a bogus message from the late former Goa CM Manohar Parrikar reflecting on his last days did the rounds, until the Goa CMO officially debunked the hoax on Twitter.

So entrenched is the menace that legitimate media outlets have had to create tabs on their websites that are dedicated to tackling fake news. And it really isn’t funny anymore, especially when lynchings and beatings over WhatsApp rumours have become routine – especially in an election year.

As a new report in The Atlantic magazine, titled “Fake News Is Endangering India’s Election”, maintained, that unlike the US, “Many of India’s misinformation campaigns are developed and run by political parties with nationwide cyber-armies; they target not only political opponents, but also religious minorities and dissenting individuals, with propaganda rooted in domestic divisions and prejudices. The consequences of such targeted misinformation are extreme, from death threats to actual murders — in the past year, more than two dozen people have been lynched by mobs spurred by nothing more than rumors sent over WhatsApp. Elections beginning this month will stoke those tensions, and containing fake news will be one of India’s biggest challenges. It won’t be easy.”

When it comes to fake news, every day is April Fools’ Day.

One can hardly blame the folks who believe fake news, when “official” sources are a fount of misinformation. The same report points out that after the Pulwama attack in February, a promoted post on the NaMo app, used by millions of Indians, “suggested that Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, was crying on television after receiving a warning from the ‘56-inch.’” This was obviously untrue, but this is a routine strategy: Apparently, the app’s news feed routinely promotes fake news. And the BJP isn’t the only offender.

When it comes to fake news, every day is April Fools’ Day. In light of that realisation, the pranks that news outlets and brands try to pull on April 1 each year seem less funny, and more tone-deaf. In some places, self-awareness is catching on. Two years ago, a collection of papers in Sweden and Norway announced the discontinuation of the April Fools’ tradition. “Because of debates and discussions about the media’s credibility being connected to fake news, we didn’t want to do [the April Fools’ pranks] this year,” said Swedish newspaper editor Ingvar Naslund.

Like a functional DVD-rental store in 2019 or Imran Khan (the actor, not the politician), April Fools’ Day pranks have outlived their relevance. The author of a Mashable article titled “We Don’t Need April Fools’ Day This Year Because We’re Living in the Age of Fake News” certainly seems to think so. In it, she writes, “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.”

So let this serve as a reminder to anyone reading to not take any so-called pranks on April Fools’ Day too seriously. Chances are, you’ll get an opportunity to freak out over a much juicier story at any other time of the year.