Misunderstood Prank on Email

A fake photo of an orca attacking a bear. It is a prank photo that has gone viral on social media.
Orca & The Bear. A Misunderstood April Fools’ Prank. See Snopes.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me understand this misunderstood prank?  On April Fool’s Day (this past Thursday) I posted an email to the town’s listserv. I  invited fellow board members to a special Transportation Meeting. My email strongly recommended that they arrive on a scooter or bicycle. At the end of the email I wrote ‘Happy April Fools!’  Despite this, two or three people immediately called the town administrator to say they had a conflict with the date. Another person called the accessibility commissioner and complained about scooters! Honestly, I sent the email in humor but it came off as a misunderstood prank. Do people not have a sense of humor anymore?  Craig (name of town withheld)

Dear Craig: Hopefully by now this misunderstood prank has sunk to the bottom of the  email well and you and the town are happily reconciled. My sympathies. All of us have sent emails that we wish to have erased.  But here is why your email “blew up.” 

First, it’s April 2021, and the pandemic has made people edgy and anxious. It’s been a stressful 13 months and many have checked out, literally.  For them,  April 1 was just another new month when the rent was due and there were bills to pay. They probably forgot the occasion unless they were tuned in to jokey-jokey morning radio or TV. The Onion is not the reading choice of your listserve friends and the media they consult may be too fragmented.

Second, and this ties into a recent DearSmartphone post, we seem to be experiencing weird, wacky, and woke decision making by public groups. Why?  Perhaps the majority of people who meet on Zoom don’t speak up, and a vocal minority lead the charge.  Your April Fool’s  email that required board members to arrive by scooter or bike might have struck them as another wacky iteration.

Jumping to Wrong Conclusions

Obviously, you are grieved because people did not read the email to the end. That would have clarified it was an April Fool’s lark. But, in my post on the weird and wacky, note that disassociated publics can jump to quick  (and wrong) conclusions. Most likely, the members read the email from home, alone, and for some, still in their PJs. The post would have been received differently had they congregated at the water-cooler or conversed about it over the office cubicles.  

While I hate to be a spoiler, there is a larger, sinister issue surrounding your innocent April Fools prank. Increasingly our media seems to be hijacked by fake news and fake followers. For example, nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages about the pandemic this past summer were probably bots, according to researchers  at Carnegie Mellon University. And, recently The New York Times has started publishing ‘Daily Distortions’, a feed to chronicle and debunk false and misleading information. Meanwhile, it’s not just the news stories that are co-opted. There is increasingly sophisticated  software that alters and fabricate images.

Check Hoax, Check ‘Snopes’

You might get a smile from the site called hoaxes.org where I found the river image (above). Quite to your point, someone posted the image and a  prank story on April’s Fools day, 2015.  Snopes, a useful fact-checking site, says people continue to stumble upon the image of an Orca attacking a bear.  Bearware?!  It’s beginning to feel like everyday is April Fools!

Zoom meetings and weird decision making?

Why are decisions of the board so wacky and weird? Is it because of meeting on Zoom?

news clipping, alongside of picture of Orson Welles, about the 1938 broadcast of 'War of the World." Source: inhistorytoday.
When a different medium led to weird decision making
(graphic: inhistorytoday)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are planning a small move soon, but will still be able to use the city’s public schools. But now, as a parent, I worry how weird these schools could get. My wife and I have been shocked by the decision making of the local school board. Do you think that their choices are a function of meeting together on Zoom during the pandemic? Would weird decisions be less frequent if they meet on Zoom less and more in person? Teresa, San Francisco

Dear Teresa: You rightly point out that group decision making over Zoom is new for most and has reached its pinnacle during the pandemic. We have a technology, fresh out of the box, and not a lot of experience of how it tweaks or spoils public meetings.

So, a dip into the  annals of communication (see photo). An established technology with a new function can overtake the story line, particularly in anxious times. Just before W.W. II, people tuned into radio to hear the “boot by boot” “frame by frame” deliberations of the Axis powers. This was the first time in history the public could follow the pre- war buildup nightly, on radio, from their living rooms. It’s hard to picture today, but listeners heard Orson Welles Halloween Eve 1938 radio broadcast, called the “The War of the Worlds” and many panicked.  They trusted radio news, and never had reason to doubt it. On Zoom, we trust that the interpersonal dialogue has just moved to a new platform, but perhaps it’s not the same as face to face.

Zoom is Different

In today’s environment, we don’t have Martians landing, but there are some similarities. Zoom is ‘new’ software running on established media. A Zoom meeting does not function the same as pre-pandemic Skype meetings and Facetime calls. For the most part those were bolstered by interpersonal meetups opportunities for non-verbal exchanges, and less emphasis on the word itself- things critical for business relationships and group dynamics.

And, the Zoom meeting is typically larger. Public meetings, like the school board are composed of people we  ‘know’ in person and those (i.e. strangers) we have not met IRL.   Zoom meetings are also longer: we are on the Zoom platform for multiple hours at a time, often without breaks or a change in scenery. They wear down our critical faculties: “six hours on Zoom is like 10 hours in the office.” Finally, Zoom meetings are peculiar, per our conventions of two way communication: with its picture in picture function, we view ourselves viewing ourselves, analogous to fun house mirrors.

Trust in the Settings?

But, to your question: perhaps public groups reach bad decisions for other reasons- namely  they cannot trust the technology. You will recall the story of the local school board that thought they were talking offline, and exchanged “non-PC” stuff about the parents who needed babysitters, so schools needed to reopen. These are offhand remarks people might toss out privately to each other, perhaps in the parking lot or before the official meeting “on stage”. It might be communicated with humor, not with resolve. Now contrast that with Zoom. That school board, and others, have surely learned that if you are online and not sure what or whom is recording it is preferable to stay muted. So, Zoom meetings could be stifling real speech and debate.

Conversely, online meetings also stifle the “pregnant pause” or quiet moments that occur in natural, in-person conversation. Micro-moments of silence may be necessary for people to process and reflect. And there is a propensity for the quietest people to not speak up. Zoom’s chat function, polling, and raising a virtual hand are not real replacements.

Finally, and this may be at the crux, it is easier to “slack off” on Zoom. No one is going to know if we did not have the time (or the will) to read the background documents, take notes, and study the agenda.

In Sum:

For all these reasons, and probably more, Zoom  in 2020 may have led groups to decision making that may seem weird when we look back on the pandemic year. Perhaps it is less about the technology and more, circa 1938, about playing into  community wide fear and anxiety. I am sure that there are some groups and public sessions that have been improved by meeting over Zoom. I invite readers to contribute them! Meanwhile, good luck with the move and settling in-person into a new neighborhood.

Does Social Media Run our Lives?

A photo of a young girl in Paris near Eiffel Tower taking a Selfie with Phone.
Does Social Media Run our Lives and Our Travel too? (Getty Image)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does social media run our lives? My college roommate is a teacher in Los Angeles. He and I stay in touch, and we had planned to take a Spring Break trip this month.  This is a tradition  since we roomed together (except in 2020). Now he heard on Facebook that he was not supposed to post pictures. And he wants to cancel the trip and not travel. Is this fair?  Christian, San Francisco

Dear Christian: When I started this column, I expected that the majority of letters would be about bad digital behavior and public shaming, but now that seems wrong. Human behavior is so much more complex. It’s too easy to blame the Internet for our woes.

Travel for younger people is often inspired by photo-opportunities and bragging rights. In a 2018 travel study, Millennials and GenZ noted that posting travel pictures was also artistic and helped them feel connected. They hoped to visit exotic or scenic locales, and use smartphone cameras to record the moment. That’s not so different than the behavior of old-fashioned tourists, except that elders did not share their photos as publicly. 

More Than Pictures

But, photos are the superficial issue. Your friend may not want to go because of a larger, more pressing issue brought on by social media. The teacher’s union worries  that parents, and other members of the public, will find the holiday photos online.  Social media would reveal if teachers are straying far from home.

A similar issue occurred in Broward County (Florida). There, the School District reopened schools after they scoured teacher’s Facebook pages, and found some of them posting pictures from restaurants, Disney, and beach vacations. The teachers and lawyers went head to head. 

It is likely that your friend wants to cancel the trip because social media might “follow” him. That is the overarching concern if someone takes vacation pictures and then posts them on social media, even if they can obscure the time and date of the posting.

Whose Social Media?

Your friend is posting on his personal account, so the vetted social media policy for the school district does not apply.  But, it’s a slippery slope. School districts have challenged the rights of students to post on social media when their posts do harm and injury to classmates. When private posts go public, we begin to change our behaviors.

The way I see it, and you may disagree, teachers are opinion leaders, role models, and upholders of community values. They can’t be willy-nilly about their social media posts, any more than a federal judge, a medical doctor or a rabbi. Each profession upholds a duty and responsibility to their constituency. So, for your friend, it’s not about travel photos per se, but about the milieu of leadership and values. 

Digital Literacy for Adults too

Ironically, some school districts instruct students in a curriculum called “digital literacy.” It’s designed to make students better digital citizens. We should not neglect teachers and educators. We expect adults to be good role models, but most of them have not grown up with the technology, and are in some ways, less informed than the ‘digital native’ students. Skills like privacy controls, identifying deep fakes, and manipulating images may not be in the adult’s toolbox. 

The University of San Diego publishes a “9 P” digital literacy curriculum, one of many out there.  Their fourth “P” is about photographs- with content on geotagging, facial recognition software, and general precautions on photo posting. 

So take heed! Teachers and parents learned in more traditional ways and have a lot to learn from the digital literacy classes. It makes sense to assume that the more digitally literate our teachers are, the more they will employ these skills inside the classroom…and outside of them too. During these days when our travel trips are limited, and we are on social media more, it could not be more important.