What should be the standards of ethical conduct on April Fool’s Day? Research indicates that the tradition is a long one, and versions of Spring foolishness celebrations have been around for centuries. One source says, “April Fools’ Day is observed throughout the Western world. Practices include sending someone on a ‘fool’s errand,’ looking for things that don’t exist; playing pranks; and trying to get people to believe ridiculous things.”
That seems about right. What, if any, are the limits to what is an acceptable joke on April Fool’s Day? Is anyone a legitimate object? Should there be a reasonable likelihood that the target or targets of the joke will share the jokester’s amusement? Is it ethical, on this one day, to cause actual harm? Is the calendar date a license for anyone, no matter how important or well trusted, to play practical jokes? Is April Fool’s Day really a world-wide “no trust day,” during which we are to be on alert to trust no one and rely on nobody’s word? Most important of all, should the tradition apply to mass media and web hoaxes, when thousands or even millions of people will be or might be deceived?
I think everyone will agree that there have to be limits. Reputable news organizations, if there are such things, cannot ethically use their front pages and bulletins for fake news, even seemingly obvious fake news. The public needs information every day of the year. Identifying the proper approach of other information communication media, however, is a difficult call.
On April 1, the Harvard Law Record announced that Harvard Law School would be giving full tuition refunds to any graduate who did not have a lucrative, big firm offer. It quoted the Dean as saying, “We don’t promise incoming students meaningful careers or that they’ll become the next president of the United States. We don’t promise that they’ll have a positive impact on the U.S. or the world, or that they’ll find their passion in the three years it takes to complete their J.D. The only thing we really do promise is a huge corporate salary.” I think this meets every standard for a web-based joke. It is clearly satire, the story is manifestly unbelievable, and to the extent that there are always people who will believe anything, it is fair to say few, if any such persons are readers of the Harvard Law Record.
The idea that on a special day people are given cultural license to spoof, fool or prank their relatives and friends is a humanizing one. 2010, however, is not 1750, and there are some clear limitations that need to be agreed upon. I’d propose these as a start:
1. April Fool’s tricks are not for professionals to play on those who depend on them, trust them, or otherwise rely on them for information or services, unless there is a special relationship as well. The risks of harm and abuse are too great.
2. If the joke is intended to do any kind of tangible harm, including causing anxiety, public embarrassment, expenditure of time or third party consequences, it is unethical. For a useful list of some really unethical April Fool’s Day “jokes,” see the Museum of Hoaxes collection here.
3. April Fool’s Day should not be used as an excuse for harassing enemies, adversaries, or anyone who would not regard the joke as well-intentioned.
4. The April 1 joker must be reasonably certain that the joke will not affect untargeted third parties who are beyond his ability to contact or relieve.
5.There must be reasonable presumed consent to be pranked, implied or otherwise. If someone has stated in the past that they do not like being the butt of jokes, or if there is reason to believe he or she will not appreciate the joke, then it is unethical to make such individuals a target.
6. If the joke involves making someone believe the ridiculous, the prankster has an obligation to make the falseness of the story apparent after the initial deception. If this is impractical, then it is fair to give some notice, “Games” magazine used to place “April Fool’s Issue” on its cover when it included fake games and articles.
Do these principles collectively have the effect of declaring web-based pranks off-limits? Almost, I’m afraid. At very least, they place a burden on the prankster to think through his or her scheme and make certain that the date isn’t the only protection against a cyber-joke hurting unintended, unappreciative, or unusually vulnerable victims.