Fake news roundup: Disputed Santa, Obama moving to Canada, police deception and more

It was a story that pushed every possible emotional button.

Eric Schmitt-Matzen, a Tennessee man who plays Santa and has the beard for the role, was called to the bedside of a dying five-year old boy in an ICU who was sad that he was going to die before Christmas. 

“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’

“He said, ‘Sure!’

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

“He said, ‘They will?’

“I said, ‘Sure!’

The boy then died in Schmitt-Matzen’s arms, or so the story went.

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This week, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel, where the story originally appeared, published an editor’s note saying that the paper “has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.” The Washington Post couldn’t find any local hospital where anything of the kind had happened. 

For its part, the local NBC affiliate said that it had verified “key details” of Schmitt-Matzen’s story, but wouldn’t publish them for privacy reasons, and viewers would just have to trust them.

Was a well-meaning columnist rolled by a convincing sociopath in a red coat? Or is a kind-hearted man cruelly misunderstood? (“If some people want to call me a liar . . . I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying,” Schmitt-Matzen told the Post.)

READ: Tennessee Santa defends himself while questions grow about veracity of dead child story

The truth may emerge, or not.

What it speaks to, though, is that we both enjoy our vulnerability to this kind of heavily sentimental narrative and, in a different mood, resent it.

In the novel The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens created the character Little Nell, a girl of impossible patience and virtue who dies slowly throughout the book. Readers hung on every detail of Nell’s decline (and in an era when novelists were paid by the column-inch, Dickens made it last and last and last).

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There’s a reason, though, why Oscar Wilde’s quip that “a man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell” has been so widely quoted. With Disputed Santa, we’ve moved firmly from a Dickens mood to a Wilde mood.

WATCH: The story of a Tennessee man playing Santa Claus who said he comforted a dying child is now being called into question

Click to play video: 'Was Santa faking it?' Was Santa faking it?
Was Santa faking it? – Dec 15, 2016

Here are some things that didn’t happen that emerged this week: 

1. Barack Obama said before the U.S. election that his family will move to Canada if Trump was elected

Now in fairness, we have to start by saying that this story, in the Burrard Street Journal, a satirical site in the tradition of The Onion or The Beaverton, wasn’t originally intended to be taken seriously. A disclaimer describes the site as “satirical and entirely fabricated,” and points out that is contents “are works of fiction and constitute fake news.”

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If you describe your own content as fake news you pretty much aren’t fake news.

The Daily Mail picked it up, leading by saying that “a White House aide has failed to deny rumors President Barack Obama is planning to leave the United States if Donald Trump wins the election,” and telling the reader further down that the rumour started on a satirical site.

From there, Fox picked up the story. Sean Hannity presented the story as a fresh outrage, noting in passing that it had come from a satirical site, but making no effort to deal with the contradiction.

From there, it was a short step for a series of right-wing fake news sites to present the story simply as fact.

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Burrard Street Journal founder John Egan, angry at sites that were “misrepresenting everything I’d written as if it was fact,” he told Global News, resorted to takedown notices, with limited success. Though Egan finds that Trump is “easy to write for because he’s capable of saying anything,” he’s “burned out” from writing parodies of U.S. politics, and will stick to Canada from now on.

READ MORE: B.C. satirical news website founder takes on fake news sites that ‘copied my articles’

2. Two men in Santa Maria, Calif. had been arrested for identity theft, and had been handed over to immigration authorities. 

Local media reported this as fact, though it hadn’t happened. Why?

Because police fabricated the story in a press release as part of a murder investigation. The media, as intended, took it at face value.

(Police learned through wiretaps that two men involved with a gang were about to be killed, the Associated Press reported. They took them into protective custody, but concerned that the would-be killers might harm family members if they thought the men were in hiding, police fabricated the press release about their arrests.)

The local police chief described the tactic as “a moral and ethical decision,” while a local TV news director said it left her “deeply troubled”.

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(Similar things have happened in Canada. In 2014, Ottawa police issued a news release with false information, claiming that a murder weapon had been found when it hadn’t.)

READ: Police criticized after using ‘fake news’ in sting aimed at California gang

3. Alex Jones never referred to “all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered, chopped up and raped”

“Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children, and I can’t hold back the truth any more,” Jones told his viewers before the U.S. election. “Hillary Clinton is one of the most vicious serial killers the planet has ever seen!” You can see the rest here.

Now, that link is a mirrored copy of the original Infowars video, which as you can see got up to about 420,000 views before it was taken down on about December 8, as best we can make out from the Internet Archive.

A few days after the video disappeared, Jones decided that he had never said any such thing, or alternatively had been quoted out of context.

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Conservatives have distanced themselves from a conspiracy theory that claims that Washington’s Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant is the centre of a child sex abuse ring orchestrated in part by Hillary Clinton, since a North Carolina man showed up with an assault rifle to check out the reports for himself. At least one shot was fired.

READ: Aimless Comet Pizza gunman latched onto internet, religion

Jones’s video disappeared at about this time. So did a tweet by president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security advisor, retired Lt.-Gen Michael Flynn, expressing support for the conspiracy theory.

If there was a concern that violent, apocalyptic rhetoric had pushed an unworldly person over the edge (Edgar Welch, the alleged gunman, told a reporter that he’d only recently been connected to the Internet), it shouldn’t be surprising.

Have a look at these two clips from the now-deleted video:


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Now – if you follow – criticizing someone for saying that Hillary Clinton had personally murdered children, if they hadn’t said any such thing, would be outrageous.

Declining to go home, Jones went big.

In a new video, Jones referred to himself as the victim of “incredible deceptions that are beyond anything I ever read about happening in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.” The (mainstream media) “is putting out vicious fake quotes in newspapers across the country,” he told his viewers.

If you listen carefully, Jones’s argues both that the quotes were fabricated and also that, to the extent that they might be real, they were intended as a criticism of Clinton’s Middle East policy. Have a look at the videos and see what you think.

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Is @AlabedBana real? (Spoiler – yes, as far as we can tell.)

Bana Alabed is a 7-year-old girl trapped in besieged Aleppo.

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Her Twitter account, @AlabedBana, (warning – disturbing images) has over 220,000 followers. Many readers are using the account as a window into the suffering of civilians in Aleppo, and in Syria more generally, as Russian-backed Syrian troops attack the city. Her mother is involved in managing the account, but they’re open about that.

RT, formerly Russia Today, wrote recently that “the account presents a number of questionable elements that some say point to a propaganda effort.”

But as best we can make out, she seems to be where she says she is.

Bellingcat sorts though the evidence for her existence here. They make a convincing case that she actually is in Aleppo, and to the extent that we’ve been able to check their reasoning, it stands up.

READ: Some claim 7-year-old Syrian girl’s Twitter account is fake ‘propaganda’ tool

Bellingcat compares stills from videos on the Twitter feed to details of a specific neighbourhood in east Aleppo, where closely packed medium-rise apartment buildings overlook a narrow park, and we’ve duplicated their research. If you look carefully at this Google Earth image of Aleppo, you can see that @AlabedBana‘s videos are taken looking northeast from a rooftop across a narrow park, toward buildings with a characteristic shape.

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How to check an image in 19 seconds

There have been images purporting to be from Aleppo that aren’t, though. Here’s a video explainer on how to trace an image’s history in 19 seconds using Google Image Search. (Tineye also has its fans.)

Facebook, under mounting pressure to deal with its role as a passive vehicle for circulating fake news, is starting a program to flag fake news as fake. And a Chrome extension lets you both flag fake news on Facebook and have stories flagged as fake identified in your browser.

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