Conspiracy weary: April Fool’s Day in the Fake News era

“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” Bill Murray, Ghostbusters

Celebrated on 1 April each year, April Fool’s Day has long had the world’s media and brands pranking audiences with outlandish stories or campaigns.

The BBC’s ‘Spaghetti-tree hoax’, adverts for white Guinness and Google’s ‘nose’ service are memorable examples of April Fool’s jokes that captured the public imagination. The internet and social media have given the annual pranks a new lease of life with countless websites now compiling lists of the best pranks of the day from around the world. Typically, the most successful viral content is realistic enough to seem plausible, yet remarkable enough to draw attention, clicks and shares.

Recently, however, the rise of ‘fake news’ clickbait stories that intentionally spread disinformation, regardless of what day of the year it is, has become a challenge for online news sites and social media platforms.

As the infographic below shows, the spread of fake news online is widely recognised as a serious issue, yet the question of how it should be tackled – and by whom – remains unresolved.

In the lead-up to the 2016 US election, fake news stories generated more user engagement than those from mainstream media sources. Just like successful April Fool’s hoaxes, stories such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” were able to go viral by grabbing readers’ attention. These wild assertions appear genuine for some people and draw the curiosity of others. In both cases, the material’s shock factor fuels further online engagement.

While truth-stretching has a long history among sections of politics and the media, the fact that 68% of Americans now use social media as a news source signals a shift in the relationship between traditionally respected providers of information and the general public.