Maybe April Fool’s Day is a good thing
April 2, 2011 | 12:04 am
Every year, I approach the coming of April 1 with feelings of existential dread. Since the Internet got popular, April Fool’s Day has been celebrated all over it as International Act-Like-An-A**hole Day.
I’ll grant that the obviously humorous stuff, like Gmail Motion, can be pretty funny, but not all humor is that obvious, especially if you have only a passing familiarity with the subject matter. (For instance, a few years ago a prank posting that TSR was buying Middle Earth Role-Playing totally got me.) And then there’s the times when people outright try to put one over on you, as in the infamous incident in which webcartoonist Illiad claimed Microsoft was making him close down his User Friendly comic (which ended up backfiring on him when it created an astonishing level of uproar). If you get caught by one of these pranks and repeat it as truth, you can end up looking like an idiot to all your friends who know better. And nobody likes looking like an idiot.
Worst of all, since real news doesn’t stop happening on April 1, even the sites that post pranks are going to have them intermingled with real stories, and sometimes it can be tricky to figure out which is which. And since the joke stories don’t magically vanish on April 2, people have to remember to check the dateline of anything that looks too good or bad to be true for at least a week afterward.
But over the last week, an incident occurred that made me change my mind about April Fool’s Day, maybe just a little bit. It was the Samsung keylogger story, in which a Master of Science in Information Assurance graduate determined that what appeared to be a keylogger was installed on new Samsung laptops. (A keylogger is a program that captures all keystrokes and transmits them to a remote site, and is most often used for obtaining passwords and other private information.) This appeared to be confirmed when a Samsung supervisor allegedly confirmed Samsung did intentionally put the software on to “monitor the performance of the machine and to find out how it is being used.”
Of course, a day later it proved to be a false alarm—the security product the graduate used to detect the keylogger turned out to be crying wolf over a perfectly harmless, if nonstandard, directory, and the company that made the product has since apologized to Samsung. But what struck me is that, during the day before this came out, the people I hang out with online (myself included)—all highly-intelligent, sensible people—were discussing the story as if we believed it was true, comparing it to Sony’s rootkit gaffe and suggesting Samsung was gonna be in big trouble. (To be fair, there might have been a bunch of “if this is true” both stated and implied there, but I certainly don’t remember anyone speaking up to say, “There’s no way this could be right.”)
In retrospect, it seems like even a moment’s thought should have suggested something wasn’t kosher here—a major company like Samsung would have to be insane to install a keylogger on all their computers, and if they had it would surely have been found by professionals long before now. But based on a Masters graduate’s research and an anonymous Samsung supervisor’s vague confirmation (which could be explained by a simple misunderstanding of what software the graduate was talking about—working in a call center as I do, I see that kind of miscommunication happen all the time), we all believed, at least for a day or so, that Samsung really had installed that software.
And the Internet is filled with people who are a lot more credulous than my friends and I, and also filled with blogs that don’t always check their sources or get their facts straight. Blogs tend to be good at getting at the truth in aggregate, but any given blog isn’t necessarily trustworthy in everything it posts. People post wild rumors that are believed for some time before they get debunked.
For instance, back in January, Ain’t It Cool News started a rumor of Keanu Reeves announcing two more Matrix sequels—subsequently denied by Reeves’s publicist who pointed out that the school at which Reeves supposedly made this announcement didn’t exist. (And yet, Ain’t It Cool never updated the original post with the news that they got hoaxed, and the fact that it’s a hoax doesn’t even appear on the first page of Google results for “keanu matrix sequel”.)
Urban legend debunking site Snopes.com has been pointing out for some time that we’re too credulous, and we trust what we read on the Internet too easily. It even points out that we should be skeptical even of trusted sources like Snopes, with a section called “The Repository of Lost Legends” that, in a change from Snopes’s usually-trustworthy reporting, includes a series of bald-faced lies presented as gospel truth. (And I’ll admit, a couple of them actually fooled me the first time I read them.)
This section graphically demonstrates the pitfalls of falling into the lazy habit of taking as gospel any one information outlet’s unsupported word. We could have put up a page saying "Don’t believe everything you read, no matter how trustworthy the source," but that wouldn’t have conveyed the message half as well as showing through direct example just how easy it is to fall into the "I got it from so-and-so, therefore it must be true" mindset. That’s the same mindset that powers urban legends, the same basic mistake that impels countless well-meaning folks to confidently assert "True story; my aunt (husband, best friend, co-worker, boss, teacher, minister) told me so."
And in the same spirit of not believing everything you read, maybe it’s a very good thing that, for at least a few days a year, we have to read news sources a little more critically than usual or else look like an idiot to our friends when we repeat as truth something that turned out to be an April Fool’s prank. Maybe it will remind us that we should be doing that all the year ‘round.
That still won’t keep me from dreading and loathing the day on general principles, however.