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Fake News

April Fools Day has come and gone, blessedly free of any major pranks or hoaxes. I suspect that with the mad state of the world today, most of us viewed the day as redundant and let our inner practical jokers slumber for another year. However, I did view an amusing article on social media that day. It comes from a website entitled hackstage.nyc, which features parody news articles concerning the performing life here in New York. (The title is an obvious riff on the performer’s trade paper Backstage, which should be a tip-off.) The article in question was called “Fake Equity Card Laminating Ring Uncovered in Non-Union Actors’ Apartment,” and it’s about exactly what it says it’s about. It’s good for a laugh. Feel free to take a moment and read it. I’ll wait.

As the day progressed, I noticed a curious thing. Despite the obvious fake name of the news source, despite the ridiculous content, despite the article being over a year old, despite the fact that they literally changed the design of Equity cards years ago so you no longer have to laminate them, despite years of precedent about not believing whatever you read this time of the whirling year, I kept seeing this parody being shared and commented upon as if it was real. Scores of reasonably intelligent people had fallen for it, and fallen hard. The scourge of “fake news” had struck again.

It’s hard to talk about “fake news” without wandering into a partisan minefield; we’ve reached the point where anything that doesn’t agree with our political views is clearly an elaborate hoax perpetrated by some conspiracy or other (my money’s on the underground mole people). So it’s useful to see it happen in a partisan-free context like this, to get some kind of handle on exactly how and why it gets spread. And it’s not enough to just shake our fists and say “the internet!” Plenty of stuff, true and false, appear on the internet without going viral. (Like my blog posts, I’m afraid.) Why this story? Why now?

For one, it takes advantage of a divide between two groups. How healthy the relationship is between union and non-union performers tends to fluctuate. When I started out, back in another century, relations were terrible; AEA performers never seemed willing to communicate to us, and we always seemed to ascribe the worst possible motives to them, convinced that they made it impossible for us to join the union in order to stave off any competition for work. As the nineties gave way to the aughts, it seemed that communications improved, as the union realized that the rise of non-union tours meant we needed to reach out to as many performers as possible to remain strong. Sadly, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way again. I think recent changes to the website have prompted this: the information on upcoming auditions is now in the members only section, and the new online sign-up system means that fewer slots are available on the actual day of an audition, making the odds of “future members” being seen even longer.

All of which is to say that there’s a lot of people out there right now who are feeling left out of Equity’s world, having no idea what the union does for performers or how people get into it. A story about a fake card ring may well be plausible. And if there’s enough free-floating resentment and frustration out there, it may be exactly what they want to hear.

Which brings me to the second thing about fake news; we believe it because we want to. It reinforces some existing prejudice of ours, manifests the fantasies cooked up in the darkest parts of our ids so that we can point to it and exclaim “ah-ha!” It’s worth remembering, when we mutter about Russians or what have you, that ultimately we’re the ones responsible for it. And if we want to fix things by stopping it, we have to start by fixing ourselves.

As a wise man once said, it takes two to lie – one to lie and one to listen. Sadly, that man has often been regarded as quite the fool. An April fool, as it were.

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