In the era of fake news, is April Fools' Day funny anymore?

On April Fools’ Day, real news organizations used to publish fake news.

The Capital Times reported in 1933 that the dome had toppled off the Wisconsin statehouse. In 1977, The Guardian published a lengthy travel feature story on the fictional San Serriffe islands. PC/Computing magazine covered a fake bill banning the use of the internet while drunk in 1994.

But in 2018, April Fools’ Day feels different.

New research shows that, at least on Twitter, claims that fact-checkers have debunked spread further and faster than those fact-checked as true. Governments around the world are contemplating how to fight misinformation. The term “fake news” itself has even been weaponized by politicians and used to jail journalists.

With that in mind, what could this year’s biggest April Fools’ Day hoax possibly be? Perhaps something along these lines?

In order to learn more about the function of the holiday amid a sea of online fakery, Poynter spoke with Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who researches emotions, decision-making and humor. This Q-and-A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What do you understand to be the origins of April Fools’ Day? I’ve read that it could be anything from a prank played on people with the wrong date centuries ago to simple spring fever.

I’m not a historian, so my understanding of April Fools’ origins are probably similar to yours. It seems to be an extremely old tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

So one theory is that it reflects the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar and that some people were slow to make that switch and that those people were basically using the wrong dates, so that April 1 became this derisive sort of comment that people were making fun of those people. But there might be some other historical events that led to this belief that, “Here’s a day to trick others,” and maybe there’s some pre-Christian beliefs about whether it’s the change of seasons — going into spring — that reflects this idea of unpredictability.

I don’t think anyone knows for sure what the root of April Fools’ Day is, but there does seem to be a long history of playing pranks on April 1.

It seems like this is something that’s baffled historians for a long time.

For sure, but we’ve seen a professionalization of it. We’ve seen organizations tap into the holiday and run with it, both in ways that I think take the sort of theme of the holiday to a more intense level and in some ways advance company goals.

We’ve seen, for example, the sort of fake stories that are very common, not only on college campus newspapers but also with mainstream media, where they publish fake news. And by fake news I mean what we used to think of as fake news. So there are fake stories and many companies have jumped in with stories that promote their own company. Whether it’s Taco Bell saying they’re going to purchase the Liberty Bell and call it the “Taco Liberty Bell” or Virgin Atlantic talking about a new airplane that flaps its wings, they’re coming to jump in and try to get attention for themselves in ways that I think sort of celebrate the holiday but also grab attention.

And there’s a lot of criticism of that, especially of news organizations that do the same thing. But before we get there, let’s back up. It seems like a version of this holiday exists in most cultures on Earth. As someone who researches humor, why do you think that is?

I think part of it is that it creates an outlet for people to express themselves. It allows people to express ideas, it helps people challenge a hierarchy — so people can say things in jest that they might have been thinking or wanting to say, but they wouldn’t otherwise — and I think it creates a sort of safety valve to allow people to let down their hair, be themselves, be a little bit freer in their expression and have some fun with it.

In the human psyche, what kind of role does humor and pranking play? Why are people even interested in that?

I think it serves first as an outlet for people to express things that might otherwise get pent up. Second, I think it helps creativity where we think differently; it challenges us to think differently about the world around us. Third, it does allow us to challenge the social hierarchy so we can do things like make fun of either royalty or world leaders or challenge our boss in the some way.

So we’re giving people a wider berth around the norms of acceptable behavior and we’re creating a safe space in which to do that, and I think that’s important. By creating that safe space, it allows people to sort of express themselves and it could bring people closer, it could communicate an idea, it could change the way we think. So you’re right — there’s something interesting in how universal, how enduring this is, that we’ve essentially preserved a space for challenging norms.

That’s a really interesting idea. But obviously there’s a fine line between humor and outright falsehoods. There are a lot of sites out there that claim they’re writing satire that actually might just be writing fake news. Where do you think that line is — when is something funny and when is it just malicious?

That’s a great question, and I don’t think there is a fine line; I think there’s a fuzzy line. When does something cross the line from being offensive to being funny? Part of it depends on the context and part of it depends on who you are.

What makes something funny is that it’s a violation, that we’re challenging something, but that it’s also in a safe space — that it’s somehow benign. So the jokes that we make, they’re challenging us to sort of think differently of they’re making something up, but they’re doing it in a benign kind of way. And when it feels like it isn’t benign, that’s when jokes can feel offensive.

There’s a term called psychological distance. The psychological distance is how close or far you are from something both in time and space and in social proximity. So if I make fun of your social or ethnic group, that’s going to be closer. If I make a joke about 9/11, that’s close in time. If I make a joke about the War of 1812, that’s very distant in time. And if things are so psychologically distant, it might not challenge you thinking, it might not be a disruption or offensive even a little, and there’s nothing funny about it. But if I strike too close psychologically to your thinking, then it could be too offensive and also not funny.

So there’s this gray area of what is funny. And it’s very hard — particularly today, when we’re trying to reach a mass market — to get to that point of what is funny for people without offending people. And you see even celebrated comedians that do this for a living, they will offend some people by overstepping where they thought it was funny but there are some people who see it as possibly offensive.

When you think about actors that aren’t even trying to feign good intentions, like purveyors of misinformation, do you think that casts a shadow or makes it harder for people who genuinely like to partake in April Fools’ Day or publish satire?

I think it does, because I think it prepares readers to be on guard and to be suspicious of the intent. And if you have good intentions, you now need to worry about coming close to some other satire that has malicious intent. And I think as we’ve moved to this plethora of media, there’s so many avenues for us to get our news and we have the option of consuming news that matches our preferences.

There has been this explosion of fake news, people receptive to receiving fake news, that it’s become difficult to fact-check all the stories that come out. It’s much easier to produce material than it is to fact-check it. And I think for those of us who are seeking to play jokes, now we’re constrained insofar as making up outrageous stories, making up a story about Russian collusion or interferences in the U.S. election. It’s become a hot topic that is almost certain to offend some people or be perceived as hackneyed by others.

Considering all of this, do you think April Fools’ Day still has the potential to be funny or provide that reprieve that was needed in the past?

I do. I think it remains relevant as long as we have a status hierarchy, which has characterized every human civilization throughout time, this affords an opportunity to challenge that status hierarchy; to bend the normal rules that we adhere to. And I think it creates a safe space for many people.

I think in some ways it’s become a more intense holiday because so many organizations have jumped in and conducted pranks on scales that we couldn’t have imagined 200 years ago, and in other ways it has become more routine with institutions like Saturday Night Live that routinely poke fun of people. But I still think that, for the vast majority, this creates a safe space to do something, whether it’s in within a family, within your own organization or your own work group. This creates a space that I think is important for prompting us to think a little bit differently, to express ourselves in ways that creates a safe space for us to bend rules.