Santa Claus and other fake news: how do we know what’s real?

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
December 17, 2016 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS —There is no Santa Claus.

We know that statement is a bald-faced lie. It is fake news.

Newspaper editor Francis Pharcellus Church of the New York Sun fact-checked it in 1897 and concluded, “He lives, and he lives forever.”

Fake Santa stories aren’t new. The latest is about a five-year-old terminally ill boy who died in Santa’s arms after the jolly old elf rushed from a department store gig to hospital to be with him.

“They say I’m gonna die,” the young boy supposedly told Santa. “How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?”

“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in,” said Santa.

It was a story to rival “Yes Virginia.”

But wait — the Knoxville News Sentinel, which printed the story, has retracted it, and it’s now widely regarded as a fake.

Or, is the story that says it was a fake, actually the fake? It’s getting hard to know which is which.

One-offs like the Knoxville Santa pale by comparison, though, to the phenomenon of the fake-news farms and basement variety hoaxers, churning out outrageously false stories to do social mischief and promote political agendas.

Anyone can set up a website in a few minutes, connect it to a Facebook page, and go into the business of the Big Lie.

Fake news reached its zenith during the U.S. election, so much so that some say the phenomenon killed Hillary’s chances of becoming president (others say she did that all on her own). We all know about the made-up story that she was involved in an underage sex ring run out of a Washington DC pizza place. A man was arrested last week after showing up there with an assault rifle because he believed the story.

The merchants of fake news have lots of historical precedent to go on.

The Scientific American has published an article outlining three of the great lies of history, including a fake issue of a newspaper by none other than Benjamin Franklin in 1782 that included a story about a bag full of scalps taken from soldiers and civilians and was being sent to the King of England as a gesture of friendship.

The story was accepted as truth by the American public, and was later used as propaganda against Native Americans during the War of 1812.

While it’s easy to blame social media for the advent of fake news, supermarket checkout stands are replete with tabloids that have been making money off it for years. If you haven’t been paying attention lately as you wait in line, you won’t know that JFK is alive, a missing plane has been found on the moon, Prince was murdered, Elvis just died and a woman is alive and well after having her head re-attached. Clearly, the tabloids have moved on from Hillary.

The mainstream media, meanwhile, are in a state of near panic and self-examination over fake news as consumers increasingly question the line between the phonies and Big Media.

The Columbia Journalism Review this week put at least some of the blame on traditional news outlets, writing that  “Public trust of the media has been in decline for decades, though the situation now feels particularly cataclysmic with the atomization of media consumption, partisan criticism from all corners, and the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House.”

Ah, yes, those Trumpisms. Was a time when a politician’s greatest fear was being caught in a lie. Trump has turned that upside down, fibbing so much that the public believes half of what he says and doesn’t seem to care whether the other half is true or not.

Whether it’s weapons of mass destruction or the yellow journalism that set the fuse for the Spanish-American War, the media have often been willing pawns or partners in the Big Lie in war and politics, and now find themselves accused of being complicit with the hackers and mass-fake news manufacturers in Russia, Asia and Europe. (Just in case you thought all this is an American invention, a lot of it is actually fed from across the ocean.)

Those in power are happily profiting from the mass confusion. The tyranny of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — in which nameless propagandists toil 24-7 to revise history and forge “facts” to ensure the lies of government can never be proven — has arrived.

In my media coaching workshops I point out that journalists consistently rank around 40th in the rankings of occupations that people trust, down around lawyers, used-car salesmen, politicians and telemarketers.

As Mark Twain said: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”

We live in dangerous times. Tyrants thrive on fake news. There’s big money and big power in fake news. If we can’t trust what we read and hear and see in the media, how can we know what’s real and what’s not?

All we’re left with is that age-old warning, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” and the re-assurance that Santa Claus is real.