April Fool Prank or Fake News

08 Apr,2021

 

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

Shashidhar NanjundaiahI hope we all had fun on April 1. I remember playing—and being played–dumb pranks at school on April Fools’ Day, back in the 1970s. It is so heartening (not really) to see that the tradition of schoolboy pranks lives on in adulthood. It gets sillier when the media plays pranks with us. Eyeball-roll level silly.

Newspapers have traditionally remained elevated on the no-nonsense pedestal, often to the point of snootiness. We expect news to have little sense of humour apart from the organic-wry type—when the news itself is ironically funny. One that I chuckled at recently was even as Mamata Banerjee was pivoting her campaign by calling BJP leaders “outsiders” to her home state of Bengal, her party colleague Mahua Moitra fell for a typical rhetorical trap and tweeted that her party leader would consider contesting elections from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. That remark gave Narendra Modi and other campaigners delightful fodder for counter-rhetoric. Nobody would really take either Moitra’s tweet or the riposte seriously because we have become literate enough to take campaign rhetoric with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, third editorials and guest columns aside, when newspapers try to be funny, they risk being seen as lacking practice and expertise. When one of the most reputed newspapers in the country ran an April Fool’s prank online, it stuck. In its compulsive fervour, the headline ran: “TD merges with BJP, Naidu finalises deal”.

 

The “report” went on to provide a file photo of Telugu Desam’s (TD) leader Chandrababu Naidu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and an intro lead-in that stated:

It could not be independently confirmed if any of the former TD Rajya Sabha MPs who joined the BJP acted as facilitators.

The story began:

Hyderabad: In a development that marks a tectonic power shift in Andhra Pradesh politics, Telugu Desam (TD) chief and former three-term chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has decided to merge his floundering party with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), bringing to an end the saga of a regional entity that had seen a meteoric rise in the country.

TD leaders reportedly felt the party has lost its verve and there is little hope of reinvigorating the party within the next three years and wrest power from the YSRC in the next Assembly polls.

Did anything jump out at you as fake?

Exactly.

Nothing. The news piece continued in the way any news item would, even specifying timeline—a month—for the TD-BJP merger. The last sentence of the piece was a half-disclaimer at best (never mind the English):

A political analyst said, “Readers must carefully look at today’s date. They would realise the right conclusion to come to is April Fool’s Day.”

Now, that disclaimer could have meant anything. Let us give the mirthful writer and their editor the benefit of doubt and claim they did their job by carrying it, albeit in all its ambiguity. But the assumption that like the writer and the editor, the reader is somehow obligated to read a news item until the last line is fallacious. It is a technicality that does not take in account reader habits.

That is likely why the already beleaguered Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party promptly wrote to the Editors Guild of India, objecting strongly to the piece. The Guild stands by its editors to the extreme, sometimes to a fault, while protecting their freedoms—so silence would be an expected outcome there. To the party, it must have felt as though the editor was kicking someone who’s down. Being a political party, it also seized the opportunity to seek political mileage, by stating that the article “reeks of agenda, and the timing [just after the TDP badly lost urban local body elections] makes it abundantly clear that the author has allowed his personal interest to influence his professional duties.”

It was a needless controversy, but is it fake news? That depends on how media-literate we are. The expectation that all or most readers are—or ought to be—somehow fully aware of editorial subtleties is unfair. A look at the social media reactions to the piece tells me most people did not read the article to the last line. Many digital non-native writers habitually keep their punch lines until the end. But articles are not like breathtaking videos. I am reminded of a recent viral video that showed a plane seemingly landing on the divider of a highway, in the end frame anticlimactically stating that it was all a trick at the editing table. In the case of that video, the viewer is much more likely to watch until an anticipated climax, and I would not call it a fake.

As to the fakeness of the article, the answer in my dictionary is, yes. An April Fool’s prank is meant to make the butt of a joke feel a little silly. It is meant to be humour that causes momentary anxiety before the truth is revealed. It is its own form of satire, and satire is universally accepted as a kosher form of fakeness. But the distinguishing passcode is whether it is recognised by a typical reader or audience as such. In the absence of that receiver-confirmation, fake appears real—the very definition of fake news.

The responsibility of eyeballs-seeking editorial clickbaits lies in being brilliant enough to discern between humour and fake news—unless the publication is itself biased and blinded by agenda. That may be unlikely in the above case, but look what the irresponsible cat dragged in. The presumption of media literacy is another level of editorial snootiness.

 

As the founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah author is attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. He is also an editor. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com.

 

 

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