What causes “SyntaxError: JSON Parse error: Unrecognized token ‘<'" in React Native?

TL;DR: In React Native, you will get “SyntaxError: JSON Parse error: Unrecognized token ‘<‘” if your URL returns a 404 error, or in general if the content is not a JSON string.

In a recent post, I showed how to display a list of movies that had been fetched from a REST API. It worked great, but I wondered what would happen to my app’s user if their device was offline, or if the REST API ever went down. To mimic this behavior, I changed the URL by adding the number 1 at the end of it, like this: “https://facebook.github.io/react-native/movies.json1”.

And here’s what I saw in the emulator:

SyntaxError: JSON Parse error: Unrecognized token ‘<‘

The red screen says “SyntaxError: JSON Parse error: Unrecognized token ‘<‘”. That may be confusing, although if you work with REST APIs for any time, you’ll soon come to recognize what it means. Meantime, how do we investigate this?

When I load up this test URL in a web browser, I see content which looks like this:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
  <head>
  ...Page not found...
</html>

It’s a fancy 404 error page. That explains why response.json barfs on this; it’s not JSON. Your app expected a JSON string. It tried to parse the string into a JavaScript object, and couldn’t handle a non-JSON string. As a reminder, here’s that fetch call:

componentDidMount() {
    return fetch('https://facebook.github.io/react-native/movies.json1')
        .then((response) => response.json())
        .then((responseJson) => {
...
        })
        .catch((error) => {
            // TODO FIXME replace the red screen with something informative.
            console.error(error);
        });
}

In the longer term, I will want to replace that red screen of death with a nice error page which instructs the user what to do. I’m still developing my application, however, and as a dev, I’d rather see the stack trace for errors like this when they occur.

So to deal with this, I’ll do two things: 1) I’ll add a “TODO FIXME” note in my code. When I’m cleaning up code in the end stages of development, I know to look for these types of comments which indicate work still needs to be done. 2) I’ll open an issue in my issue tracker which will let everyone on my team know that there’s something that still has to be handled in building the application. I’ll bring this to the attention of anyone who needs to know (a project manager, perhaps). The project manager may assign a designer to build a page with some graphics or specific text to display to the user in case of this error.

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