An story about a San Francisco elementary school student getting suspended for wishing an atheist teacher a “merry Christmas” has all the elements a viral story needs to gain traction, except the most important one.
It’s not true.
The satirical story posted at the National Report was shared across social media and through email chains, resulting in threats of violence against a school with a similar name.
The hoax began last week, when the site – which includes a disclaimer that its stories are satirical – reported that a 9-year-old boy was suspended for extending the holiday greeting to his homeroom teacher, who was described as “an outspoken atheist.”
That set off many readers who encountered the story, which slipped perfectly into the “war on Christmas” narrative pushed by pundits peddling books.
The story garnered more than 20,000 likes and shares from the National Review’s Facebook page, and it was linked more than 400 times on Twitter.
Dozens of conservative websites and blogs also picked up the story, which also included a link to a Change.org petition and a link to the fictitious teacher’s email address.
The story identified the school as Argon Elementary, which doesn’t exist, but is similar to the real-life Argonne Elementary School, whose administrators heard from some of those angry readers.
Rev. Craig Donofrio of KFUO.org in St. Louis was among those readers who contacted the real-life principal, Cami Okubu.
“Thank you for your monumental blunder, it will provide me weeks of material on my show,” Donofrio wrote. “Keep up the terrible work. It makes my job so much easier! MERRY CHRISTMAS! Craig.”
Donofrio told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was disappointed to learn he had been duped.
“It is sad that people make up such stories and agitate others into outrage in such a way,” he said in an e-mail, adding that he had apologized to the principal. “I was very happy that I did fact-checking before going on air with this story, and it has not been discussed on-air.
“I learned a valuable lesson through all of this, that being: There are complete and utter creeps out there who make up such things.”
Donofrio’s response was among the more civil to Argonne administrators, who called for an emergency teacher meeting to review security procedures and had an extra security officer assigned to the school at taxpayer expense.
“I would like to give my Christmas gift to this spawn of the devil teacher. ‘Drop dead you scumbag!’” wrote one reader.
The National Report has since changed the name of the school in the article to Anon Elementary, which also does not exist in San Francisco.
Another story on the site claimed a student at Berkley Elementary in California was expelled for wishing a Muslim teacher a “merry Christmas,” but that wasn’t as widely shared – and was also untrue.
The real-life secretary at Argonne Elementary School spent hours answering calls from irate readers explaining the story wasn’t true, causing most to hang up, and the school began sending all incoming calls to an automated message explaining the hoax.
Those outraged comments, the writer said in an online chat hosted by Reddit, are essential to his satirical stories.
“The entertainment, in my opinion, is the comments,” said writer Paul Horner. “Every story I write has a goal of some kind. I feel the comments are part of my story. I moderate all the comments and will delete ones that don’t go along with my story — such as calling it a hoax etc.”
Horner said he wrote the story to show there was no “war on Christmas” and to expose bigoted and mean some Christians can be.
“A fun target is the bible-thumping-tea-party-racist,” he said. “They are easy to troll. They post the most evil, hate filled comments. Then when they find out it was a hoax, their comment is still there — they can’t delete it — and they are exposed for who they are.”
“My true goal is for that group of people to fact check better,” Horner said. “I don’t even like Obama, but for real reasons. 90% of the reason why they don’t like him is not factual. It can all be dubunked. Just as long as it’s anti-Obama they are more than happy to pass it along to their echochamber as truth.”
[Image: An angry man holds a Bible and a crucifix via Shutterstock]
Updated to include comments from Paul Horner.