Drinking gin helps you lose weight. This, at least, was the scoop from a fashion and lifestyle magazine a while back.

Prima, quoting what it said was a Latvian academic paper, claimed a regular dose of Mother’s Ruin increased calorie burning by 17%.

This news went down as well as a fancy £40 bottle of however you like your raw grain alcohol flavoured. It was picked up and widely repeated by online journalists waging their Sisyphean struggle to capture, bottle and sell viral stories.

The only problem was that the Gin & Slim tale was a joke. Prima had published an April Fool’s hoax with all the unsubtle hints of the genre: the researcher quoted was called Thisa Lye.

The magazine was trying to entertain its readers, not mislead them. It was doing nothing worse than a dad who sends his six-year-old next door to borrow a tin of tartan paint.

But there is one thing April 1st reminds us: we can all be gowks. We often fall for stories that reinforce our beliefs and habits, even funny ones. Can humour be used to spread more damaging misinformation, perhaps disinformation? Well, doh, of course it can.

We have all heard the “I’m only joking, luv, calm down” defence for cruel or inappropriate words or behaviour, including lies.

Yet there are clearly people who do not appreciate – or pretend not to – that satire, hoaxes, parodies and gags can be used and abused to spread falsehoods and even hate.

There was a weird little episode on Scottish social media over the last week which demonstrated both this problem, and some distressing stupidity about efforts to counter it.

A pro-UK account on X, the old Twitter, published a short mash-up video in which the leaders of the SNP and the Greens were supposedly mocked by the stars of the TV show Dragon’s Den.

There is a lot of this kind of content online. Think of all those pictures of Nicola Sturgeon as Jimmy Krankie. Or even the recent image of Rishi Sunak as a vampire.

Hey, maybe there are people who think this stuff is funny. Me? I suspect its target audience are hyper-partisans who clap, jeer and cheer rather than laugh.

This partisan guff can be recycled for malice. And in this case was. A frame of the Dragon’s Den “satire” was screen-grabbed and widely shared. It showed a sheepish Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens subtitled saying something remarkable: “For the well-being of most people in the world, industry is dying, will die, must die.”

One peculiarly zealous online unionist publishing this new meme declared that Mr Harvie was “worse than a Marxist”, a “dangerous extremist”.

The Ferret – an independent investigative journalism platform – decided to fact-check the claim. Did Mr Harvie really want all industry to die? Nope. The quote had been taken out of context. The Green minister was talking about the fossil fuels causing the climate emergency.

What happened next was fascinating: the fact-checkers faced a backlash, featuring the kind of tiresomely dim but now routine claims of bias made against journalists.

There is already a fair bit of hostility to the kind of work The Ferret does from those who see reality as a prison cell and facts as its bars.

All sorts of bad faith partisans, querdenkers, contrarians and sundry other BS artists hate the idea of anybody “policing” their speech … even if it is just to point out the things they say which are unequivocally untrue.

But there was particular bile over The Ferret fact-checking something that had supposedly started out as a joke.

Disappointingly, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop, was among those who chose mockery over understanding.

“In its latest journalistic scoop The Ferret can also reveal that despite what Spitting Image claimed, David Steel was not in fact small enough to fit in to David Owen’s pocket,” the KC posted on X in response to the fact-check.

OK, Mr Dunlop was probably trying to be funny but he was also spectacularly missing the point.

Spitting Image was something clearly labelled as satire – and featured, well, puppets. It was much harder to mistake for reality than a screen-grabbed meme with a deliberately misleading quote.

In my view there is little excuse for anybody not knowing that online satire can be misleading, either deliberately or inadvertently.

Experts have been warning of this for some time. Last year a French politician was quizzed on air about things they were supposed to have tweeted but actually came from a parody account. That provoked a fair bit of discussion on the other side of the channel.

Journalists looked to America, where parody, including that made in bad faith, has long been used to mislead. “Given that I find new examples of people falling for [satire] every day,” Shannon Poulsen of Ohio University told Agence France Presse, “I’d say it is a notable and consequential form of misinformation.”

There are plenty of partisans online who simply do not care if they tell the truth or not. They are so convinced that their opponents are evil that they think misrepresentation is legitimate. Some of these liars – let us be frank about what they are – will hide behind “humour”. Will such misconduct spread to the political mainstream? Maybe it already has.

An MP last month apologised for sharing a manipulated image of the PM pulling a pint with way too much foam on top.

That is not a call to shut down parody sites, ban April Fools or suppress the noodle-brained zealots who post mock-ups of their political foes on social media. But reality-based journalism and fact-checkers like The Ferret do us all a service by correcting the rubbish which jokers, including malicious ones, sometimes generate.

It does not matter if a falsehood starts off as a deliberate attempt to mislead, or as innocent leg-pulling, like Prima’s gin hoax. We need to sober up about the threat of “I am just having a laugh” misinformation. And quick.