Lazy bunch: Fools' Day pranks show how fast fabricated stories can travel

Former U.S. President Barack Obama holds the ball at the launch of Sauti Kuu resource centre n in Siaya county, in July 2018. [Reuters]

On April 1, The Standard newspaper ran a story announcing that former US President Barack Obama would be resettling in Kenya in June for at least a year in a new diplomatic role.

It was a Fools' Day prank and we indicated that promptly, shortly after midday.

However, for days, social media went abuzz with heated debates on the imminent Obama migration. Mainstream media adopted the story and spread it while calling for public participation in discussions such as why Obama was actually moving and if it was, indeed, a good thing for him to do.

Podcasts were created to explain this new development and bloggers interrogated his motive.

Within 24 hours, thousands had tweeted, retweeted or commented, in many other social media platforms, on this very exciting news.

As they fanned the flames, many, including top accounts on social media, some belonging to media houses, did not attempt any fact-checking of any kind. While information disseminated by The Standard should be trusted as a true account of happenings, responsible journalism demands that one thoroughly queries information available even on the most reliable of sources to avoid the propagation of hoaxes.

After all, it was Fools' Day and we had indicated as much. A simple check of the new title we had assigned Obama should have sufficed. He was coming to Kenya as the "Special Envoy for US Diplomacy (SED)".

Fact or fiction?

This is a non-existent title, thought up by this writer on the go. Other certainly exaggerated ideas were there as clues that the story was fictional, with "facts" cobbled up hurriedly.

Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, would for the first time ever sit in high-profile political meetings. Obama's wife Michelle coming to Kenya was in doubt. The 44th President of the US would settle outside Nairobi in counties that would help him understand devolution better (we included Mandera "where he was expected to see first-hand the threat of Al Shabaab, thus better advising the US on best, and prompt, actions to take").

And he would be shooting a documentary, narrated by broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough and actor and voiceover guru Morgan Freeman.

It was a too-good-to-be-true story. A good read nevertheless. At the bottom of the page, we indicated it was a Fools' Day story. That it gathered wild momentum told us that most people did not read to the last line.

Excited at the headline and maybe the first few paragraphs, enthusiastic news spreaders frantically battled to be the first to enter the world. One after another, their targets swallowed the bait. Some sober voices tried to hush the excitement but the fire was furiously razing through a gossip-loving world.

Spreading fast

It makes one wonder how much fake information is adopted as the truth and spread by those we trust most.

On the same day, most of the local media houses pulled a prank. Oliech had been announced coach of the national football team Harambee Stars, one said. Kenyans were to be paid Sh10,000 for every Indian house crow killed, another said. They received traction that should have cooled off soon after Fools' Day was over, on midday of April 1. The Obama story, however, did not.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, theories started flying from every corner. It was soon impossible to know which ones held water as epidemiologists differed in what seemed to be beliefs subtly laced with political inclinations. It had been generated in a lab in an act of bioterrorism, some said. A man had eaten a bat, as was his norm maybe, but this time around it did not work, another went.

Africa, due to its hot weather and obviously underdeveloped medical systems, was going to have the most casualties. Goodbye, dark continent.

Scared laypersons lost it. The US President at the time Donald Trump said one thing and top medics a completely different thing as people continued to die. What should have been simple compliance with rules, such as wearing masks, became heavily contested. The world chose who to listen to; whoever sounded most convenient or who told them what they wanted to hear.

Falsehoods are known to travel faster and to excite more, than truths. American writer Mark Twain is said to have claimed that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

The Obama Fools' Day was an opportunity to show us just how fast fabricated stories can travel. And how so many are willing to jump onto this unfortunate bandwagon without querying anything and accelerate the spread of gossip.

Asking questions

Quick gratification at being among the first to share news has ruined trust and reliability, and intellectual querying of information.

"Why is Obama relocating to Kenya in June... this seems like one heck of a coincidence... fleeing the US?" asked a verified Twitter user called Scary Election Denier while posting a screenshot from the Further Africa website which had carried the story on April 1.

But even the website clearly indicated, as had The Standard, that the story was a Fools' Day prank.

The Fools' Day prank, apart from showing gullibility, showed we are a lazy lot who, unconvinced with taking in a whole article, masticating slowly and then digesting it, choose to either skim over, or are content assuming that the headline, or the first paragraph, is indeed equivalent to the whole story.

At the bottom of the page, we indicated that we were fooling around but a fortnight later, some readers have never scrolled all the way down, which must be really slow reading. It is unlike the olden days where there was no social media thus no overload of information. Every piece of news was interrogated, and only travelled after all boxes were ticked by professional news tellers.