I spread disinformation, and I’m very sorry

In which our brave author is found guilty of trying to be funny online

Artillery Row

I have an apology to make. I have been, unwittingly and unintentionally, but nevertheless unquestionably guilty of, spreading disinformation on the Internet. Like being struck by lightning or eaten alive by hippopotami, it’s the sort of thing you think only happens to other people until it hits you. It is especially galling because I am a (very junior) academic, and let’s be honest, nobody is in that line of work for the money. I thought I was a paladin for truth, which makes my fall from grace ever so more painful.

I remember when Snopes verified email chain letters

My unforgivable transgression was flagged up by Snopes.com, the well-known purveyor of fact checks. As a geriatric millennial (29), I remember the days when Snopes was dedicated to verifying email chain letters (no, you won’t die if you don’t forward this email to twenty people). But in this dangerous information environment we live in, where every second person on Twitter is a Russian bot, Snopes has joined a burgeoning fact-checking industry in becoming the bulwark of democracy. 

Indeed, many fact-checking outlets have collaborations with social media websites, giving them the power to flag and suppress stories. Until 2019, Snopes was a fact-checking partner of Facebook, where it flagged up fake news stories with lying titles such as “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication”.

Back to my accidental part in the global disinformation campaign. On a quiet Sunday, I was trawling through the catalogue of Canada’s national archives (as one does) when I stumbled on a striking picture of Margaret Thatcher speaking to a young Justin Trudeau in front of No 10 Downing Street, whilst his father, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, stood smiling. Mrs Thatcher was not smiling.

For some reason I thought the picture was extraordinarily funny, so I tweeted it, with the caption “Margaret Thatcher telling off a young Justin Trudeau, c. 1984”. What a mistake that was, because this is what happened next:

Now, Snopes said my tweet was “Mostly True”. But that’s like saying something is “gently used” or that someone is “a little dead”. I was publicly shamed as a liar and a fabulist — they even included my old academic rank, to make it clear that I Ought To Have Known Better.

The indictment ran as follows. First the picture, Snopes noted, “was taken on June 25, 1980 (not 1984 or thereabouts)”. Secondly, far from scolding him, Mrs T “was keen to chat to him” with the result that “A brief, friendly exchange then took place, according to reports”.

What is my defence? Well, the Library and Archives Canada catalogue did not have the exact date for the picture, but merely described it as having been taken “between 19801984”. I did a quick Google search, determined that Trudeau Sr was in London in 1984 for the G7 summit, and put “c. 1984” as the date, meaning circa, or around 1984.

Making jokes is best left to professionals

But in Snopes’ Solomonic judgement, 1980 is not “thereabouts” to 1984. In hindsight, I can see how four years might be a long time for the American people, where 100-year-old buildings are considered “old”, and I abjectly apologise.

What about the scolding that never happened? Now, that’s the really shameful part of the story. I wrote that Mrs Thatcher was telling off Justin Trudeau because I thought it would be funny. Not having the fear of God before my eyes, but with malice aforethought, I. Wrote. A. Joke.

But making jokes, like fact-checking and having an opinion, is best left to professionals, and I am emphatically not a professional joke-teller. In any case, this is hardly the time to make jokes, between the impending privatisation of the NHS and the advent of fascism on Rainy Fascist Island.

At least I did not go with my original idea for the caption, which was to write something like “Young man, you cannot wear that disguise for Halloween!” or “And when did you last see your father?” That would have been first-degree disinformation, punishable with immediate cancellation without benefit of clergy.

As I write this, my days of joke-telling are over, and my reputation as a producer of trivial (but nevertheless prize-winning) academic research has been replaced by that of a very naughty boy who lied about the king being naked and was eaten by a wolf as punishment. I shall surely face greater consequences in my next life, but for now, I only have this to say:

Nina Jankowicz, please don’t drone my house.

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