This year, don't be taken for a sucker by the media.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
April 1 2009 11:51 AM

The April Fools' Day Defense Kit

This year, don't be taken for a sucker by the media.

Google unveiled CADIE today, the first program to emerge from an ongoing artificial-intelligence project. Unexpectedly, CADIE broke free from its original directives and now threatens to rule the Web. Terrified? Well, don't be. CADIE is just the latest of Google's annual April Fools' jokes. In 2007, Jack Shafer offered advice on how to avoid becoming the victim of similar media shenanigans.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

You don't look gullible, but you are. Year after year, the media take advantage of your naiveté and humiliates you with an April Fools' Day prank.

You're probably still kicking yourself for being fooled by the April 2000 Esquire feature about "Freewheelz," an Illinois startup that promised "self-financing, free cars" to consumers. Every time you spot Discover magazine on the newsstand, you growl because you fell for its April 1995 article about the discovery of the ice-melting, penguin-eating hotheaded naked ice borer. Your father probably still gripes about Sports Illustrated'sApril 1, 1985, article about Sidd Finch, the New York Mets prospect who could throw a baseball 168 mph.

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The Museum of Hoaxes Web site catalogs these greatest hits to complete its Top 100 list of the greatest April Fool's hoaxes of all time. There's the BBC's legendary segment on the Swiss spaghetti harvest (1957), Phoenix New Times' story about the formation of the "Arm the Homeless Coalition" (1999), and PC Computing's report on legislative efforts to ban the use of the Internet while drunk (1994), just to name a few classics.

April Fools' hoaxes succeed because the victims, conditioned by a stream of implausible but true stories in the press, aren't expecting the sucker punch. If you don't want to be anybody's fool this year, assume a guarded crouch, especially as the countdown to April 1 progresses. Some April Fools' Day pranks arrive in your mailbox a couple of days before the holiday in the form of a monthly magazine. Remember, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Beware strange animals. If a story whiffs even remotely of the hotheaded naked ice borer, it's likely to be a hoax. Technology Reviewhoaxed its readers with an April Fools' story in 1985 titled "Retrobreeding the Woolly Mammoth." In 1984, the Orlando Sentinel did the same with a piece about the cockroach-devouring Tasmanian mock walrus. In 1994, London's Daily Star sports pages reported that invading superworms might destroy the Wimbledon green.

Turn off your radio. Deejays love to pull practical jokes on April Fools' Day. In 1989, KSLX-FM in Scottsdale, Ariz., broadcast the claim that the station had been taken hostage by Pima Indians, prompting calls to the police. WCCC-AM/FM in Hartford, Conn., told listeners on April 1, 1990, that a volcano had erupted not far away. San Diego's KGB-FM alerted listeners on April 1, 1993, that the space shuttle Discovery had been rerouted from Edwards Air Force Base to a local airport. Thousands showed up to view the landing despite the fact that the spacecraft was earthbound that day. It's not just shock jocks pulling the pranks—you can't trust NPR, either. Its "humorists" have aired pieces on portable zip codes you can take with you when you move (2004), federal health care for pets (2002), and advertisements projected onto the moon (2000).

Shun the British press. The British tabloids make stories up all the time, but on April Fool's Day, everybody on Fleet Street fabricates. The Times used the day to run a spoof ad announcing an auction of "surplus intellectual property"—various patents, trademarks, and copyrights. The Daily Mail announced the postponement of Andrew and Fergie's wedding because of a clash with Prince Charles' calendar. He was going to be butterfly-hunting in the Himalayas. The Daily Mail told readers that nuclear submarines were now patrolling the Thames. The Independent published a scoop about skirts for men at a fashionable shop. The Guardian declared it would replace the women's page with the men's page. In 2000, the Times complained that the surreal quality of the news—Labor turning right wing, for example—had taken the ease out of cracking a good April Fools' joke.

If they pranked before, they'll prank again. In addition to the British press and NPR, the weekly chain formerly known as New Times Inc. (now Village Voice Media) loves to hoax its readers. Google has established a reputation for silly hoaxes with pages hyping its Google MentalPlex and PigeonRank technologies. It once posted openings for its Googlelunaplex office on the moon and introduced a smart-drink called GoogleGulp!

Too good to be true. News organizations sometimes fall for the April Fools' Day pranks perpetrated by outside hoaxsters, so don't expect every clue to be obvious. If an April 1 article declares that something valuable is now "free" or purports to break news about "hidden treasure," you're being had. Does an organization's acronym or abbreviation spell April Fool? Also, scan copy for anagrams of "April Fools'" or some similar play on words. Discover's story on the hotheaded naked ice borer cited as its authority wildlife biologist "Aprile Pazzo," which is Italian for April Fool.

Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes and expert on all things April Fools', advises that you finish reading articles before rushing into the next cubicle to spread the incredible news. Many hoax articles end with an obvious clue or an explanation that it's all a joke. Double-check all radio warnings of disasters—volcanic eruptions, floods, killer bee invasions—and question any story uncovering a new, onerous tax (say, on Linux).

New-product announcements that arrive on or near April 1, such as the left-handed Whopper, should be approached with skepticism, Boese says, but he cautions against reflexive hoax-spotting. On March 31, 2004, Google released the beta version of Gmail, which featured 1 GB of free storage, cavernous compared to other e-mail provider offerings. That was the same day the company unveiled its Googlelunaplex plans. The moon joke and the generosity of Gmail's 1 GB storage caused some nerds to sense a con and insist—wrongly—that Gmail was a giant April Fools' Day hoax.

******

For a GoogleGulp of hoaxes, check out Alex Boese's bookHippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. What hilarious media-generated April Fool's Day hoax have I missed? Send your nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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