Well, another 15 minutes in the bank.
As long-time readers know, April Fool’s Day is a holiday for me. Like Christmas, it’s anticipated gleefully. I spend weeks looking forward to it and
months weeks days hours preparing a series of fake blog posts that go up throughout the morning of April 1.
I never know as I’m writing them which one will take off. It’s not strictly a question of which one I spend the most effort on, or which one seems the most plausible, or which one is the most outrageous. It’s all just a question of luck.
That clever story about Le Devoir charging for tweets? Not a peep. Bupkis. Gesca buying Rue Frontenac? Not nearly as much reaction to that as to last year’s Rue Frontenac scoop. A late-morning story about CTV’s mascot entering rehab (complete with a digitally edited photo of bags of jellybeans on an evidence table) apparently caused a few chuckles within the station but didn’t get traction elsewhere. CKAC’s decision to stop airing Habs games to add more Habs analysis didn’t fool many but did get a few laughs from Sportnographe and others who think the station talks a bit too much about Canadiens line combinations.
All these were nothing compared to a little story I made up about QR codes on Justin Trudeau’s campaign posters bringing people to porn sites.
How to manipulate the media
This is the first time April Fool’s Day has come during an election campaign here since (checking Wikipedia…) the 2003 provincial election, long before this blog or Twitter existed.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to focus on the election. It just happened to be in the news, and I happened to notice that the Liberal candidates are using these QR codes on their posters so tech-savvy constituents can easily find out more about them.
I chose Trudeau as my victim simply because I live in his riding, and his poster is outside. The fact that it’s a young, popular, tech-savvy candidate is kind of icing on the cake.
I didn’t spend much time writing it up. You’ve heard this story countless times before: Someone makes a typo in an address or a phone number, and that address or number leads to something involving pornography or sex. (Typos like this are common, but they’re not news unless they involve some funny contrast between what it’s supposed to be and what it is.)
I spent some time thinking about what the best typo would be. I finally settled on changing “Liberal.ca” to “Luberal.ca”, even though Trudeau’s website is “justin.ca”. I grumbled when I realized through a tweet later that “lustin.ca” would have been awesome. Though I didn’t link to anything, I checked to see what, if any, website was at “luberal.ca” and found it hadn’t even been registered. Eventually, as my blog post accumulated traffic, someone registered the domain and pointed it to an interesting – and relevant – place (safe for work, unless the redirect changes).
The story probably wouldn’t have resulted in much – maybe a few fooled Fagstein readers and a few chuckles. But two things happened:
1. Justin Trudeau himself was sent a link to the story by someone, and for a moment thought it might be real (he later said he called his office in a panic, only to learn the mass sign repair I wrote about wasn’t happening).
2. After learning he had been fooled, Trudeau decided to play along, tweeting the story to his 60,000 followers with a note saying “we’re working on it”. That was retweeted by 87 people, including me.
That little tweet caused the story to take on a life of its own. About 2,000 clicks in the hour after the tweet, now about 4,500, not including these 777 or others who didn’t use bit.ly shortened links. Dozens of tweets with comments (some questioning early on if it was an April Fool’s joke). Many fell for it right away, laughing at the incompetence of Liberal campaign staffers.
At the end of the day, the page got about 12,000 visits, which totally obliterates any previous record for a single blog post on this site. (I only wish such a record is surpassed by, you know, some actual journalism I may someday choose to do.)
Looking at referring pages, the biggest by far (not including Facebook, Twitter and Google) was this post on SmallDeadAnimals.com (about 2,000 clicks), with the CBC a distant second at about 300.
Le awmerde-isation des médias
Among those to be fooled was Le Devoir, where the story was posted as fact on its election blog (without, I might add, citing me as its source – a lesson to always cite sources to cover your ass). The blog post was subsequently deleted rather than corrected (another journalistic error on Le Devoir’s part, I think), though you can find evidence of it here and an apologetic tweet from the reporter here.
I might have sympathy for Le Devoir, except that in addition to not citing its source, the paper was well aware that it was April Fool’s Day. It published an “exclusive” about how the Quebec government was planning to bury its wind turbines to cut down on visual pollution. Editor-in-chief Josée Boileau tweeted a link to Le Devoir’s Trudeau blog piece, saying “et c’est pas un poisson d’avril!” … only to find out minutes later that, actually, it was a poisson d’avril. And apparently a really funny one at that.
Trudeau himself let everyone in on the gag on Twitter, explaining that he had at first been fooled and called his office in a panic.
It was perhaps the revelation about this phone call that caused the story to jump from April Fool’s gag to election story.
During elections, everything is news
One thing I hadn’t considered in writing this blog post is how desperate the news media are for election-related stories. News organizations have reporters on each of the four big campaign buses, plus people writing about the campaign as a whole. There are election websites hungry for news, and lots of blogs where little stories from the campaign trail are posted regularly.
As it turns out, a story about a big-name candidate falling victim to an April Fool’s joke is one of these little stories. Combined with a relatively slow-news Friday and the fact that April Fool’s Day itself was in the news, and suddenly it’s getting a lot more attention than it’s worth:
- 24 Heures wrote a story online about the post and reaction, which got picked up by Agence QMI and posted to other Quebecor news websites. The story originally said I was a “Gazette blogger”, which isn’t true because this blog has nothing to do with The Gazette. I pointed that out on Twitter and the story was later corrected, though copies of it on other websites like TVAnouvelles.com kept the earlier version. The version on the Journal de Montréal website is also slightly different, adding the name of my blog. (None of the stories think to actually link to the post they’re referencing.) The print Journal put the story on Page 8 on Saturday.
- The Toronto Star had it lead an election briefs package after its reporter had a brief email exchange with me. Bonus: They copied the photo from my blog and marked it as “supplied photo”, which I guess is Torontostarese for “we copied this from a website somewhere and hope they don’t sue.” The story appeared on Page A6 of Saturday’s Star.
- La Presse’s Anabelle Nicoud used the story (and my photo) to lead its April Fool’s Day roundup, also mentioning Le Devoir getting the story wrong, Le Devoir’s own April Fool’s prank, and, in passing, my other story about Gesca buying Rue Frontenac. It ran on Page A13 of Saturday’s paper. Online, it includes a video from Tristan Péloquin that also leads with the Trudeau story and has lots of pretty pictures of my blog and my Twitter account.
- CTV Montreal’s Debra Arbec mentioned this story at the end of her election notebook on Friday (which led to a voicemail message from my mother saying she saw my blog’s name mentioned on TV)
- Rue Frontenac’s Jean-François Codère led his April Fool’s Day roundup with me (and Le Devoir’s error), and they even went to the trouble of having a photographer take a photo of a Justin Trudeau campaign poster
- David Patry-Cloutier went all meta in a blog post for MSN in which he talked of how Rue Frontenac actually sent someone out to test the QR code after the Le Devoir story raised doubts that it was a gag.
- Radio-Canada’s Sur le Web blog led its April Fool’s Day roundup with the story
- Sympatico News/Branchez-Vous included it as part of a list of technology-related April Fool’s Day gags
- MarketingQC mentioned it in its list of April Fool’s gags
- CBC’s website led its campaign trail April Fool’s tweet list with Trudeau’s.
- Yahoo! News used CBC’s list as a source, and called my story “risqué”
- Canadian Press had it as the last item in its Tales from the Campaign Trail. CP being what it is, the story got copy-pasted on lots of news sites.
and Trudeau posted the blog post on his Facebook page, prompting a flurry of comments and likes.
I also got a couple of interview requests from local radio stations. I went into studio to talk to Homerun’s Sue Smith, and recorded an interview with CJAD’s Dan Delmar that aired while I was working. Both shows also talked to Trudeau, though I didn’t get a chance on either to talk directly with him.
So what did I get out of this?
I didn’t profit financially from this craziness, and any fame was fleeting at best. In the end, I got to have a lot of fun watching the story get propagated (both before and after everyone realized it was false), and I hope I’ve convinced at least a couple of journalists that it’s better to check your facts before you republish stuff you found on the Internet.
Oh, and Homerun gave me a mug after I appeared on their show. (There are advantages to making the trek to the studio, besides clearer audio and stumbling on the sight of Paul Larocque and Anne-Marie Dussault discussing their moderation of the upcoming leaders’ debate.)
I couldn’t help noticing the marking on the bottom of this mug from Canada’s national broadcaster:
But I digress…
So yeah, it was fun.
Ironically, despite all the brouhaha, I’ve yet to either meet or speak with Justin Trudeau himself for the first time, even though I’ve listened to him having a conversation about something I’ve done and approved a comment he left on my blog.
When I meet Trudeau for the first time, I’ll have an interesting way of introducing myself.
Justin Trudeau has just proven to me that (a) he is actually human, with a sense of humor, and (b) that he is destined for great things.
After all, if he can survive this, he is ready for any Marg Delahunty sort of thing that can happen in Canadian politics.
Well done Steve! I’m so tired of “copy and paste” reporting. Let’s hope local meda has learned it’s lesson!
Justin is awesome.
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As an aside, do they even make mugs in Canada anymore?
I actually thought the Le Devoir thing was probably real and decided to wait a day or two to comment since it seemed plausible to me.