Fake Blue Monday and Cruelest of Months

Henri Rousseau: The Equatorial Jungle (1909) // Public domain

Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote in The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month,” but from the perspective of the beginning of the year, gray mornings and dusk coming far too quickly in the afternoons, it is impossible to resist the feeling that April has a worthy competitor in January. Weeks without any sun, sub-optimal temperatures, accumulated fatigue at the junction of the old and the new year allow January to compete for the title of the cruelest month of the year.

A dozen or so years ago, a British psychologist, Dr. Cliff Arnall, tried to confirm the bad reputation of the first month of the year with a pseudoscientific theory. He presented a mathematical formula on the basis of which he was to determine when the most depressing day of the year would fall, the so-called Blue Monday. He looked into meteorological factors, the time passed since Christmas, monthly salary, debt, failure to meet New Year’s resolutions, and the feeling of having to act now, he multiplied it all, divided, added, subtracted, and announced that the most depressive day of the year is on the third Monday of January.

From a scientific point of view, it is a laughable theory, and the formula is based on non-calculable variables. Yet, its popularity continues despite repeated attempts to expose its nonsense.

Moreover, a journalist from the science department of The Guardian traced the origins of the theory, revealing that it was a marketing gimmick designed as part of a travel agency’s advertising campaign. Objective? Simple – since we know when the gloomiest day of the year is, you can protect yourself from it by buying a flight to tropical countries or take a trip to an exotic place.

The worst day of the year was supposed to be the best day to buy a ticket, a clever marketing strategy. This did not undermine the popularity of Blue Monday, which is still frequently mentioned by the media as if it were a confirmed, scientifically proven phenomenon, nor discourage thoughtless duplication of the “news” by masses of network users.

Is there even such a thing as the worst day of the year? Could there exist only one such day for the general population? And in what sense would this most depressive day of the year be worse, e.g. from March 12, 2020, the day of the announcement of the first lockdown in Poland due to the pandemic?

Or the day of the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of Julia Przylebska regarding abortion? Or any of the days in the past two years during which the data on COVID-19 cases and deaths soared? Or the day of the declaration of a state of emergency on the eastern border of Poland, which marks the harm and fear of the people who are stuck at the border, as well as the helplessness of those who are trying to help them?

The supposedly innocent fake news dubbed Blue Monday keeps coming back every year, supported by the authority of the author’s academic title and his university affiliation. The author himself cut himself off from his theory; the University of Cardiff, with which Arnall had been associated for some time as an evening lecturer, issued a statement that Arnall had not conducted at the said University any scientific research to establish that there was such a thing as the most depressing day of the year, let alone calculated its exact date.

Is it really just an innocent idea? For those who struggle with a serious illness such as depression, presenting it as a result of bad weather, low spirits after Christmas and New Year’s madness and an empty wallet, dangerously trivializes the problem and creates a false image in social perception as a temporary indisposition experienced by everyone and one that passes with the disappearance of the factors that Arnall had included in his pseudoscientific equation.

Several years after the publication of the nonsensical thesis, its author finally admitted that it had no credible basis and joined the campaign to end the spread of the myth in favor of a serious discussion about depression.

Unfortunately, no catchy fake news disappears as easily it disperses. They replicate like a virus, and subsequent vectors in the media and social networks are doing them a favor by mindlessly passing on stories about the alleged worst day of the year.

False or partially untrue news, fake news, disseminated for ideological, political, and economic reasons is a phenomenon as old as the world, but it has been growing in the age of the Internet and social media, rapidly gaining global reach. They are used by the authorities to maximize support, pursue particular interests, or justify their actions. They are used by companies, influencers, and celebrities who create new needs among recipients for profit.

How to protect yourself from them, how not to succumb to constantly repeated made-up messages, duplicated myths? How not to fall victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy, not to make decisions based on false information, and not to draw conclusions based on false premises? And finally, how do you not become a cog yourself in a machine that distributes manipulated and fake news? After all, the lifespan of such content is ensured by people who pass on information without applying a critical filter to it.

Journalists, agencies, and fact-checking organizations are trying to stop the wave of disinformation, crafted news, unconfirmed reports dressed in appearances of authenticity. A number of online tools have also been developed to expose fake news that support recipients in classifying them – from search engines, through content aggregators, specialized databases of scientific texts, and finally websites of organizations counteracting disinformation. They play a key role in verifying the accuracy of information and help build trust in their sources.

Not only do we need guides through the jungle of manipulated and false news, we ourselves, as recipients, should also cultivate the ability to think critically and develop the ability to check the sources, quality, and credibility of the information we receive.

In the guide for journalists and editorial staff titled “Stop Disinformation”, the Panoptykon Foundation lists the rules that can be successfully applied by any recipient who wants to be sure of the reliability of the information they come into contact with: check the source, cited experts, compliance of the news with facts and data on which it is based, compare the cited data with official databases and statistics, finally check the details and clarify any doubts directly at the source.

How time-consuming and demanding it is! However, there is no other way to curb the rising tide of misinformation and avoid falling into the trap of manipulated or fake news.

The problem of fake news has become the subject of an interesting artistic project – Artifake (Art Invades Fakes), an international project implemented by Internews-Ukraine in partnership with the Audiovisual Reporters Association (Armenia) and the Art Transparent Foundation (Poland). The organizers have set themselves the goal of promoting conscious reception of media messages and a critical approach to disinformation and fake news through art projects in public space.

In the fall of 2021, as part of the Artifake project in Wroclaw, Poland, three art works devoted to false information were shown. My attention was drawn to the artistic and scientific project “Fake News. Archive” by Alicja Patanowska, an artist, a potter and a designer, and Marcin Sawinski, who deals with data engineering and data analysis.

They created an installation that consists of an industrial printer connected to a stream of messages from the web that have been checked by fact-checking organizations. The machine prints the verified information on an ongoing basis with labels such as fake-news, half true, true, impossible to verify.

Watching successive rolls of paper printed with a stream of messages confronts the viewer not only with their sheer quantity, but also with the uninterrupted influx, which, on a daily basis, is volatile and intangible, which in this project brutally shows how immersed we are in them. The authors of the installation combined the scientific and the technological with the language of art in order, as the description of the installation says, “to indicate a possible starting point for rebuilding mutual social trust and creating awareness about the mechanisms of media untruths”.

Coming back to Blue Monday, which made me reflect on the information coming from everywhere and the role of the recipient in their verification, I know that even if I come across headlines screaming about the worst, most depressive and gloomy Monday this year, I will put them where they belong – in the mental trash, labelled as verified fake news.

Written by:

Olga Brzezińska – a manager and promoter of culture, the President of the City of Literature Foundation,and the Program Director of the Milosz Festival and Tranströmer Days. A graduate of the Jagiellonian University, SGH Warsaw School of Economics, and the Leadership Academy for Poland. She has been the originator, co-creator, and producer of various literary, musical, theatrical event,s and educational programs. The winner of the Creative Scholarship of the City of Krakow (2018)

The article was originally published at: https://liberte.pl/najokrutniejszy-miesiac/

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

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