How April Fool’s Day Keeps the Internet Conspiracy Machine Alive

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S1: What I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.

S2: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton.

S3: And I’m Madison Allen Kircher. You’re listening to. I see. Why am I?

S2: In case you missed it.

S3: Slate’s podcast about Internet culture.

S2: And the girls they’re fighting.

S3: Not us. We’re good.

S2: No, I mean, are we?

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S3: Wow. Starting off. Starting off on an interesting foot here. The girls in question are not myself and Rachel. They are Tik Tok and Facebook. I mean, meta. I mean Facebook.

S2: Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that Metta has apparently been paying a Republican consulting firm called Targeted Victory to basically spread shit about TikTok.

S3: If I was going to start a shady consulting firm, I might make a more generic the Smith Group like targeted big round group. So according to reporting in the Washington Post this week, targeted victory was being paid by Facebook to portray tick tock as, quote, a danger to American children and society. And the way that they were doing this was by spreading, planting local news stories about dangerous challenges and trends that teens were supposedly engaged in on Tik Tok.

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S2: It’s just hilarious to me that Facebook is trying to portray somebody else as a danger to American children and society. Like pot kettle.

S3: My guy targeted victory, tried to highlight things like the devious Lex challenge, which Rachel we talked about on that on the show. Right, which was teens showing off things that they had stolen, licked from their schools, mostly from bathrooms. We talked about it on our show because it was a real thing that was happening. But I think it got overhyped, like sort of trumped up to a wilder degree. You know, we would see like device like hand sanitizer and that would be like devious, like full on toilet.

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S2: Mhm. Yes. Which I don’t think, I don’t think that children are plumbers. Maybe they are. We love a treat.

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S3: Trades are very important. I hope the children are plumbers. But there are definitely some fake trends that this firm tried to convince the public was real. So I’m thinking like the next thing that came out of the devious looks challenge was Punch your teacher day.

S2: Yes. I remember this because it sounded so fake.

S3: Right? Sounds insane. It was also very literal. It was this idea that there was a tik tok trend going around that was telling kids on such and such day at such and such time, you should all punch your teachers. And violence isn’t funny. Like I did see a lot of tiktoks from actual teachers who were like, Look, this is what our lives are like. This is frightening for us. But I think in reality it wasn’t the coordinated effort that a local news story covering it might have might have purported it to be.

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S2: Yeah. So this metaphor funded campaign to fearmonger about Tik Tok mostly took shape in the form of local news stories that were actually both planted, coordinated and read over by targeted victory, but without any disclosure that they had been basically created by targeted victory. And the thing is, Metta, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg himself is correct to be scared, not necessarily the dangers of Tik Tok, though. We have spent a lot of time on this show talking about the various ways that Tik Tok terrifies us, but Facebook terrifies us too. Facebook is clearly scared that their own power is rapidly waning in younger demographics, while Tik Tok is only growing. And yeah, as I said, they are correct to be scared because Tik Tok is eating everybody else for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just absolutely eating the girls up.

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S3: This maybe isn’t the best way to go about it. Facebook. I don’t think it works. The kids, they’re all right and they’re still all on Tik Tok. Speaking of fake stories promoted online, though, it is the beginning of April, aka the perfect time to remind everybody that most everything on the internet is fake. Because we all just lived through. My least favorite Internet day. April Fool’s Day.

S2: If this feels like a variation on the theme, yes, we kind of got into this. But the slap and why everyone thought it was fake. It’s because everything on the internet is fake and no day is that clear than April Fool’s Day. The day the brands get together and sit in a room and look at each other and say, How do you do fellow kids with a skateboard and a red hat?

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S3: So we’re going to talk about some of the most infamous fake outs on the Internet. Why people, us included, get so easily hoodwinked and how this has led us to a place where we start to suspect that nothing online is real.

S2: More on that after the break. And we’re back and here to tell you what exactly the brands did this April Fool’s Day. And they did a lot, as they always do.

S3: They did. Well, Twitter is working on an edit button.

S2: Mm hmm. Exactly what the world needs. The ability to edit tweets.

S3: Mm hmm. Hellmann’s is releasing a Butterfingers World Mayonnaise.

S2: Wait. So is there Butterfingers in the mayonnaise or does the Butterfingers have mayonnaise in them?

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S3: The former. It’s sort of like one of those swirly jars. Did you ever have the the peanut butter and jelly in a single jar?

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S2: No. My mom didn’t let me get that.

S3: As mine either.

S2: Okay. I think moms, I don’t actually know who’s buying them because I don’t know anybody’s mom with them.

S3: Have you ever tried it, though?

S2: No.

S3: I bought a jar like.

S2: When I was in a job.

S3: It’s disgusting. Her mother. All right. Are you.

S2: Fucking kidding? Well, you know what? That, you know, maybe my mom made some points. She continues to make some points.

S3: The Met proudly announced that 130 years after it was painted, they unearthed a exciting piece of artwork underneath Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

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S2: Whoa. I’m assuming that that’s not true.

S3: Yeah. You swipe to the second slide and you get Rick rolled in 2022.

S2: And we’re still Rick rolling.

S3: Well, Rachel, all of these are bad. We made it through. We made it through. Have any? April Fools Day Internet jokes ever actually brought you joy?

S2: I’ve never actually enjoyed April Fool’s Day on the Internet or IRL. I’m actually not a real fan of a prank, but I will say that at least once April Fool’s Day have given us something good.

S1: I’ve been in the kitchen. Women whipping starfish and fix it with my. They want to whip it into stirring beat another service in water whipping in a story.

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S2: On the service. That’s right. In 2016, the year everything kept going downhill. We had this one spot of joy, which was Hamburger Helper, giving us a mixtape called Watch the Stove. Just the one time a brand has ever in my life giving me something I didn’t know I needed.

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S3: Yes. Including classic tracks such as Feed the Streets and In Love with the Glove. Congrats to whoever was in that that room dreaming up this prank.

S2: Most importantly, I feel like a lot of April Fool’s jokes sometimes try to pander to like black people on the Internet. And the thing about what’s this dope is that, you know for a fact that there’s a black person in that room. There was a black person in that in that little roundtable conference room who said, you know what? This is what we’re going to do. Don’t ask me the goddamn questions and shout out to you wherever you are.

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S3: Yeah, it was actually a collaborative effort. I was reading with some college students from a local music school. They, like, reached out. Right, exactly. Young Internet minded people.

S2: I love it. I just. I just. I just love it. It’s heartwarming. Just really gets me going. Gets the girls going. Not least because I got some pretty good beats. I’m not going to lie.

S3: Okay, so that’s the good. I feel like the flip side, this is all bad. But the question on the the flip side is, have you been taken in by any fake Internet content personally?

S2: You know the answer to this. You know that I am very trusting. I love, love and optimism and hope. I hope the truth is on the.

S3: Internet, out of you with every passing episode.

S2: I just. Yes. I mean, the one that I feel the most betrayed by, not least because I wrote about it as something that made me optimistic about the Internet was. Do you remember back in like 2019 when the account at World Underscore Record Underscore Egg posted an image of just an egg from some stock image website with the caption Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked posts on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner. 18 million. We got this and people just liked it. They just kept liking it. The likes were rolling in and I just thought, wow, the randomness of the internet for so long, everything has just felt like a marketing ploy trying to sell me something or someone. And here we have what is basically a stock image of an egg trying to be Kylie Jenner. I loved it. And at this point the egg has almost 56 million likes. And you might think, wow. I wish the story would end here. Same. I wish the story had ended here because it was not just a heart warming campaign. It was. It was created by a fuckin marketing executive, a British ad executive named Chris Godfrey. And I got it through that, all of my dreams, although apparently it was a marketing ploy for a mental health campaign. So like, yeah.

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S3: That’s that’s where it wound up. The creators also ended up on the Hulu payroll, making a Super Bowl ad, if I recall correctly. So you sorry. I’m just here to crush you recall correctly.

S2: I mean, this was the moment not only did I get taken in by this, but I got taken in by this. On the public record, there are two articles under my byline. The first one is The Egg is a delightfully random reminder of the old Internet. And then the second one is I got got and I’m mad about it.

S3: You told yours so I will. I will tell an embarrassed leave.

S2: Please do so I’m not the only one who looks like Paula has.

S3: Egg on her face. It is funny, though, because my my immediate first thought also for an Internet thing that got me does involve me also getting it wrong on the record. So the year is 2016, a big year for for Internet pranks. And do you remember there was this meme, it was a viral photo of a dog in a car. And there’s a sign in the window that says, Please don’t break the window. The AC is on. He has water and he’s listening to his favorite music.

S2: Oh, he has a good time. Yeah, I remember that. I really liked because I was like, people do feel like dogs and cars are always in peril and they’re not.

S3: Well, I thought I had found the owner of the dog, but. In time honored tradition of being internet culture journalists, I was in fact played by a teenager. And fool me once and only once.

S2: Oh, my God. Madison, you’re Jessica Pressler.

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S3: God, I.

S2: Wish you’re basically Jessica Pressler. Her villain origin story was getting shot by a high school student. And look at you.

S3: Fantastic. So what that actually did, though, was drive me to believe that everyone on the Internet is lying to me at all times, which is not a terrible way to approach things. But do you remember in June of last year, I actually think you were maybe on vacation, but I did an episode about tick tock, missed connections.

S2: Mm hmm. Yeah, because you thought they were all fake, right?

S3: So it started with this story of this guy who overheard a group of friends talking, another woman named Marissa, and he found Marissa. And now they’re friends. And she runs an organization where thousands of people without friends meet up. It’s delightful. Whatever. I couldn’t believe a word of it. I just. I spent so much time on, like, these people’s LinkedIn’s and their Facebook pages and, like, looking up mutual friends, trying to be like, how do they know each other? Where’s the connection? But it turned out to be real, as did the story of the two women we interviewed who same deal found each other via TikTok. I had a really hard time accepting that it was just a sweet and real story.

S2: I remember that because I came back and I was just like, Madison, what, how you how you feel it? And you were just like, it was so nice.

S3: Rachel Why do you think I’ll say we?

S2: It’s mostly me.

S3: Yeah, but look, we’re not. We’re none of us immune. May a teen only fool me once on the internet. But why do you think we get taken in so easily by weird things on the internet that seem too good or too funny to be true?

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S2: I mean, I think because the beginning of the Internet, the early days of social media were too good and too funding to be true, it was just full of random, weird shit that was shocking or heartwarming. Like, I mean, you got your favorite. Yeah, your favorite grape stomp lady. We’ve got Charlie bit my finger girl. Charlie bit me. We’ve got salad fingers.

S4: I like rusty spoons.

S3: I like to touch them.

S2: Which I will never forget but just existed for no reason. There was no monetization associated with it. And of course there was my dear beloved behind gone before its time, all ripe, but thankfully mostly free from the kind of infection of viral branding.

S3: Yeah, actually branding is a good point, right? Because we’ve gotten to this point where going viral isn’t just about attention. If it were anytime somebody goes viral on Twitter, you wouldn’t immediately see a follow up tweet. That’s like my boyfriend bought me this lamp shaped like a moon that projects stars on to the ceiling. Click here to buy just 1499.

S2: I mean, Twitter follow ups to viral Twitter. The only reason I know about the rose vibrator and I’m still eternally curious about whether or not this is as good as everybody says it is.

S3: The what?

S2: Oh, we’ll talk.

S3: But what we’re saying here. Right, is that going viral has lost any sheen of heartwarming preciousness. And just I’m guilty of it, too. But it’s a craven attempt at attention from from the top to the bottom.

S2: Yeah. I mean, because attention now equals money, there’s no way to get around that. People make their livelihoods off of morality. And it’s fair to want to make money on the Internet, but it does mean that everything now feels like an attempt to take my money.

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S3: I think ultimately I am. I like an Internet where the immediate response is, I don’t believe you.

S2: I know I don’t like it. But the thing is, it means that whenever I see something like you remember, okay, remember back in November, there was this video of a couple fighting on the sidewalk. Do you remember?

S3: With the fruit? With the fruit, yes.

S2: Yes. And behind them, there’s a woman in the street with the walker trying to pick up this bag of fruit she just dropped. Cars are just zooming past. There’s a cat involved and then the couple stops fighting. To help the woman. And just as they do, this Lake Street sign falls directly into the spot where they were just standing. It’s like a perfect Oscar award winning story about like, helping others rather than being selfish or getting caught up in yourself. And it was.

S3: Fake.

S2: It was real. And the fact that it was I was so upset.

S3: The detail that I also think is important. I saw this on Twitter and it was very, very grainy. It looked like CCTV. It looked like someone had miraculously happened to have a security camera running that captured this interaction. Except that’s not what the footage actually looked like. It came from a Facebook page of an Egyptian magician. Say that three times fast. But if you watched it on Facebook, the video quality was great. You know, 4K. Totally. Like, no one for a minute would have thought that this wasn’t staged.

S2: Mm hmm. Yeah. No, the grainy footage does always it trick something in my brain because nobody’s phone records at that low quality anymore. I’m like, Oh, this has to be real.

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S3: This reminds me, it was more recent than the the fruit street cat drama video. But I think in like January of this year, there was this Pennsylvania ski resort that similarly went viral. They posted a video.

S2: Yeah. Mm hmm.

S3: Yeah. It was like a woman giving the like, here are the conditions of the day. We have ten inches of base coverage, and, like, four lifts are open and blah, blah, fresh powder. But behind her is somebody in full ski gear, like clutching a railing, trying to walk down stairs and just absolutely eating it. It’s very funny, especially if you’ve ever tried to walk in ski boots, you know. So it turns out that this thing is fake. This is a marketing stunt for this particular Pennsylvania mountain, which I’ve forgotten the name of, but I did for a minute, know the name of it. And that is to say, it worked.

S2: I just. I want things to be real, Madison. I want I want that lady to really be struggling to go down a flight of stairs in the middle of this marketing campaign.

S3: Well, I mean, Rachel, rest assured that somewhere in the world is a person in ski boots falling down the stairs. So you can at least have that. But we cannot let these online punks take us for a ride.

S2: No, thanks. What are you, a grandma sitting on your fucking board? Just like I will let these kids take me, for.

S3: I’m a 30 year old Internet grandma, rapidly aging by the day and grandma suspicious. Over here, I’ve been trained to just question anything that comes across my timeline, and that I think is a good thing. But the wariness, perhaps the idea that I know better and should do my own research and it’s not without its flaws.

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S2: Yeah, I’m.

S3: Not a perfect grandma.

S2: After the break, we will be back to talk about how easily our viral suspicions can lead us down. Some dark, twisted path of conjecture where Baker Ality and the true crime ification of the internet meet and not for the better.

S3: Hi there. Just wanted to take a quick moment to shout out anybody who is joining us for the first time. Hello, new listeners. We are so glad that you are here that you have found our show, which is very real and not fake, despite everything we’re talking about on today’s episode. In case you missed it, our show comes out twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, so be sure to check out our Wednesday episodes too. Last Wednesday we discussed the Oscars slap heard round the world. What else? It’s a good one. You know what? I miss it. All righty. We are back. And I think we’ve well established that almost everything on the Internet is fake at this point, or at least a thinly veiled ploy to go viral. What I was saying before the break, though, this idea that we are skeptical online is a healthy thing, at least in moderation. It also does reflect in a way that makes people online smell a conspiracy, even when there isn’t one.

S2: If this sounds familiar to you, we’ve covered this multiple times and I’m just going to name a few. Right now there’s couch guy deep.

S3: In my womb, lands deep in my.

S2: Womb like wisdom. Kayla womb lands slash modern warrior. We can go on and on and on about the ways in which our perhaps healthy suspicion of things on the Internet very easily crosses over into conspiracy theories.

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S3: And this generates really toxic spaces for creators who are actually genuinely just doing weird or interesting things that no one believes are real. There’s this Tiktoker Tucker whose videos I’ve been watching like crazy lately. Her name is at a Gawker Yuppies. And I will admit, what hooked me in the beginning was I absolutely could not believe that these videos were real because she dresses in just the most colorful and wild combinations of garments I have ever seen.

S4: But the thing about this dress is like, I don’t like covering the collar with, like, a big jacket, because while the car is cute when you put a jacket on over it, it’s kind of uncomfortable because, like, you’re shoving all this fabric inside the jacket. So I owned or like a cardigan so I could put the color over it. I love the leopard added and all the prints. I would say that’s another print. I say it’s not. So I have an idea for pants in my snakeskin pants. Oh.

S3: She was obviously describing her clothes. I’ll describe them a little further.

S2: Good luck is all I have to say that.

S3: She’s wearing, like, snakeskin patterned pants under a multiple plaid pattern, prairie dress with a big square collar. She’s got a, like, leopard print turtleneck underneath that, and then, like an open green trenchcoat, hot pink sneakers.

S2: There were so many patterns. My eyes didn’t know what to focus on.

S3: I have come to love Anna’s content, but not everyone who watches her videos comes to the conclusion that I’ve reached this place of like, I love to watch someone experience joy. And instead, her comments are just full of angry people who are convinced, like beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is a bit that this absolutely has to be for clout, for clicks, couldn’t possibly be real.

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S2: This feels like I mean, I’m not going to say it’s not a terrible story because like, why would you bully this very nice woman who just loves a nice pattern with another nice pattern? But this reminded me.

S3: Nice pattern.

S2: Keep going. This reminds me of a far grimmer instance back in December. So there’s this trans talker named Sabrina Prater, who basically endured this onslaught of transphobic attacks on TikTok after literally just posting, like, goofy dancing videos, like the thing that everyone does on this motherfucking clock app. They basically began bullying her, comparing her to the Silence of the Lambs serial killer Buffalo Bill and claiming she had victims in her home. And there was no obviously no evidence of this. Why would you, if you were a serial killer, why would you put it on TikTok? But there was no evidence of this. The tick tock conspiracy machine, obviously, as we’ve asserted previously, doesn’t actually need any proof. They just go on vibes. And this real killer conspiracy spreads so fast that hashtags about her, about Sabrina were getting more than 10 million views on them across the platform. She started getting doxxed with people who lived near her, posting videos and her personal information online. And it was honestly terrifying watching how quickly a bunch of random people on the Internet rose up against this harmless woman who was, I must say, very much not a serial killer. But it’s something we see over and over again in these spaces where someone decides something’s off. Post that in the comments where they’re just like, Am I the only one who saw this? Like, how are y’all not focusing on this thing? And then that just spirals into this hurricane of harassment.

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S3: I mean, maybe it’s a good thing that every Tik Tok comment section right now is overrun with crop storytime and recipes for brownies then.

S2: Honestly, I do love the Tik tok comments, but sometimes I’m just like yo, I need to go outside and touch grass because this is goddamn wild. Stop micro analyzing every fucking video. It’s like people basically open the app and they’re already wearing a tinfoil hat. They don’t even need anything to wear the tinfoil hat over. It’s just ons permanently on. They’ve got to hear anything from the goddamn tinfoil hat.

S3: I think where we’ve landed and what we talk about a lot. Here, maybe in not specific terms, is we are talking about digital literacy, which is a skill that has to evolve with us. Like even you and I have given examples of, you know, being fairly online people who are fairly smart about this stuff. And, you know, we’ve been fooled by things. We have rewired our brains to try to not be fooled by things. And the things keep getting more pernicious. And it is hard, I think, to navigate being just skeptical enough that you’re not pulled in by obvious fakery, but also being willing to believe and understand that not everyone of me is a goddamn liar.

S2: Yeah. It’s basically not losing your humanity and attempting not to get scammed in that. A lot of people on the internet are trying to sell you something, but most of the time there’s just another person on the other side of that screen just trying to live their goddamn life.

S3: A little more compassion, a little more generosity. With the exception of if you are a teen trying to lie to me, I will. I have a very particular set of skills. But all right. That’s the show will be back in your feed next Wednesday. Please subscribe. I asked nicely to make sure that you never miss an episode. Also pretty. Please leave us a rating interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify and tell your friends about us. You can follow us on Twitter. We are at. I see why am I underscore pod. We love it when you do ask your questions. And of course there’s always email. I see. Why am I at Slate.com?

S2: And so I am I is produced by Daniel Schrader, were edited by fourth. LICHTMAN Alegria Frank and Alicia montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcast.

S3: See online for falling down the stairs at the ski resort.

S2: Not a perfect.

S3: Wow. A lot of Rachel singing on the set for me. April Fool’s Day, baby.