Everything You Read on the Internet Is True (April Fools)

As a B.U. professor proved when he conned the country into believing his April Fools origin story, we're all too gullible.

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, let’s just agree that April Fools’ Day is the worst day of the year to be on the internet. And yet, there are lessons to be learned from it every year.

Consider the old story of a Boston University professor who conned the country into believing his made-up tale about the history of April Fools. As BU Today recounted, in 1983, historian Joseph Boskin got a call from an Associated Press reporter who wanted to know about the origins of April Fools’ Day. After insisting he didn’t know much about it, Boskin finally gave the reporter a made-up story, thinking he’d instantly see through it. The medievalist invented a tale about a jester who became king for a day, named King Kudel. (He named him after the Jewish noodle pudding.) The reporter didn’t pick up on the joke and instead published the tale. Soon, Boskin found himself taking calls from all kinds of credulous news outlets wanting to know more about King Kugel.

This kind of story seems commonplace these days, when the internet accelerates the pace of a story’s spread and diminishes the time spent fact-checking it. It takes only a few hours for a false story to take on a life of its own. (See David Bernstein’s “The Story of a Non-Story” for a useful case-study.) This is the reason that April 1st, when we abandon any responsibility for making stuff up, can be so treacherous.

But that undersells the extent to which the internet is treacherous all year round. There are so many Onion knockoffs touting parody news stories these days that even the New Yorker is in on it. A friend once emailed me a humor piece by Andy Borowitz which suggested that Queen Elizabeth had called out Chris Christie for his gay marriage stance. The friend fully believed that the austere monarch of England had said about the New Jersey governor, “he’s not as forward-thinking as an eighty-seven-year-old lady who wears a crown on her head. It’s pathetic.” Surely Borowitz thought his parody was self-evident. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t regularly berate American politicians with self-deprecating wit. The woman barely smiles. But search the article link on Twitter, and you’ll see that a good portion of people who sent it out thought it was real. And intentionally falsified news under the banner of parody is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to BS being passed around the internet every day.

So given the state of American gullibility, maybe we should embrace April Fools’ as a sort of yearly reminder to reporters and readers of internet things—a training day where we teach our minds how to read with care, and how to assume that if something seems too ridiculous to be true—like King Kugel the jester-cum-monarch or Queen Elizabeth, the sassy Democrat—it probably is.

Basically, live every day like it’s April Fools’ Day—except for the making stuff up and posting it to the internet part. Don’t be annoying.