Melissa Ryan is the author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the so-called alt-right organizes online. She has spent more a decade leading digital campaigns for Democratic political campaigns, and progressive advocacy organizations. All opinions expressed here are her own.
If you were online late Friday night or Saturday morning, chances are you saw the news that actor and internet phenomenon George Takei announced a run for Congress. Per an article in The Daily Buzz, Takei and his husband Brad were looking to purchase a home in rural Tulare County California. Takei “confirmed” the move to a reporter and announced his intention to challenge embattled Republican Congressman Devin Nunes for his seat in Congress — yes, the same Devin Nunes who, as Chair of the House Intelligence Committee has been all over the news for all sorts of intelligence-based improprieties with the White House. Ecstatic progressives gobbled up the news on Twitter, and Takei himself tweeted the article using the hashtag #takei18.
The news spread like wildfire on social media. Soon George Takei was trending on both Twitter and Facebook. Despite the fact that the news broke on April Fools’ Day, media outlets picked up the story. Some acknowledged that the announcement could be an April Fools’ joke but covered it anyway. By Saturday morning, Takei tweeted again, acknowledging the prank, but the story was still being shared widely.
April Fools’ pranks are an internet tradition. Companies and celebrities are known to play elaborate tricks on the holiday. Even knowing that, many well-meaning people fell for the Takei story. In an era where fake news runs rampant online, where our president loves to tweet conspiracy theories and expects the White House to treat them as fact, and where we now know for sure Russia uses fake news to influence elections — April Fools’ Day feels different this year. Being fooled is a lot less fun. As Takei himself tweeted on Saturday, “We're living in a world where every piece of news about the White House could have qualified as an April Fool's headline in years past.”
Takei for Congress actually mimicked a trending trope of fake news stories: celebrities moving from the big city to a small town. Snopes recently wrote about the sudden popularity of this particular hoax where a celebrity, tired of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, discovers a small town randomly, falls in love with the local scene, and immediately decides to leave Hollywood behind to move there. What made this prank especially brilliant was the twist of adding Devin Nunes into the narrative. The idea of a beloved celebrity with a lengthy record of social activism challenging Nunes was irresistible clickbait.
Here’s the problem: the internet took the bait — despite the many reasons to be skeptical, including that it was April Fool’ Day! — because we wanted it to be true. We were duped. The prank might have been all in good fun, but it also exposed how almost anyone, no matter what their political leaning, is vulnerable to fake news.
This matters because we now know without a doubt that Russian hackers used fake news and propaganda to influence the U.S. election last year. They weaponized our social media feeds, employed content farms to create fake news, and used bots to disseminate false information and Russian propaganda. America was attacked, and the FBI, Senate Intelligence Committee, and House Intelligence Committee are all investigating whether Donald Trump and/or members of his campaign team colluded with Russia on these attacks. Additionally, in a Senate hearing on Friday, former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Clinton Watts testified that Russian bot accounts still tweet fake news stories at President Trump in high volume at times when he’s likely to be online.
Now Russia is using the same tactics in other European countries in an attempt to influence their elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, up for reelection this year, has been the target of more than 2,500 disseminated fake news stories designed to undermine her credibility, and Italy’s popular Five Star Movement political party has built a massive social media network specifically to distribute fake news and Russian propaganda. Fake news has become so prevalent in France that First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting disinformation and propaganda, launched CrossCheck, a collaborative effort to correct the myriad of fake political news stories being shared on social media there.
April Fools’ Day pranks are all in good fun, but fake news is a weapon being wielded in a broader information war. The goal is to create an environment where we can’t tell the truth from fiction, and where we lose faith in American institutions including the media. The success of the Takei For Congress prank shows just how vulnerable we all are to this kind of attack. A large-scale survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs and Buzzfeed found that “fake news headlines fool American adults about 75% of the time,” no matter what their political leaning. We might think we’re too smart to fall for fake news, but that belief likely makes us even more vulnerable.
It doesn’t help that the actual news coming out of Washington today sounds less plausible than Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie deciding to leave Hollywood and move to a charming southern small town. “Follow the Trail of Dead Russians” was an actual headline used by many traditional news outlets just last week, and the White House once justified their use of falsehoods in press briefings by referring to them as “alternative facts.” If reading the news these days makes you feel like we’re living through the plot of a vintage spy novel or a conspiracy thriller movie, you’re not alone.
The George Takei prank is a perfect example of why fake news works and everyone — no matter what their political leaning — is vulnerable. We believe it because we want it to be true. As Jen Hayden wrote on Daily Kos, “Please don't let this be an April Fool's Day joke, we actually would love to see Takei run.” The sentiment runs parallel to Trump voters who were prone to believing that Hillary sold weapons to ISIS and wasn’t mentally or physically healthy enough to run, who wrote and disseminated that message online.
On Saturday, not long after announcing that he wasn’t actually running for Congress, Takei tweeted a second April Fools’ Day prank which claimed that Disney had announced a live-action remake of The Lion King in which Simba would now be a gay character. Takei tweeted it, but unlike the Congress-run joke, did not offer a correction. It was an April Fools' Day prank about a cuddly cartoon character, but the truth is that fake news blurs the lines between fact and fiction. And that's anything but cuddly.
Editor's note: The last paragraph to this story has been updated. The original version of this story said that Takei and his social media team fell for the Simba prank, but it turns out that like the first prank, Takei was in on the joke all along. His team confirms that "George was in on the joke."