The Year in Hoaxes: Pizzagate, Plus-Sized Undies and a Lying Santa
If we learned anything in 2016, it was that the stuff in which we once rested our faith—polls, childhood heroes, the news, even our own eyes—could no longer be trusted.
Fake news itself was dubbed the lie of the year by fact-checking website Politifact. The swarm of conspiracy theories dressed up as credible journalism had an outsized effect on the U.S. presidential elections, convincing a gullible and in some cases dangerous, section of the public that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a popular pizza shop, that the Democratic party was imposing Sharia in cities across the country, and that celebrities like Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Michael Moore, Harrison Ford, Tom Brady, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift, had endorsed Republican nominee Donald Trump, a reality television star with no government experience and twitchy Twitter fingers. It was fake news itself, in fact that dethroned 2015’s “Lie of the Year” winner, Donald Trump.
It’s fitting that the man who speaks the truth only 4 percent of the time, who coined the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” (“An innocent form of exaggeration,” Trump explained in The Art of the Deal) will soon preside over us all—a nation that, if this year is any indicator, is very, very easily fooled.
It wasn’t just Trump who tricked many of us with fabricated stories like Barack Obama screaming at protesters, Democrats both suppressing the vote then profiting from “millions of people who voted illegally,” and a revisionist Electoral College landslide victory. Trump seemed to inspire both his fans and opponents to create hoaxes of their own.
A video showing five black men vandalizing a car adorned with Trump stickers quickly went viral after a push from conservative blog The Drudge Report. Its creator, Joseph Saladino, a YouTube personality who goes by the name Joey Salads, said the hidden camera “experiment” showed definitively that “the black community is very violent toward Donald Trump and his supporters.” Saladino’s ruse was undone by a 17-year-old who saw the car’s destruction being filmed and posted a video of his own.
Anti-Trump hoaxes were spread far and wide, as well. Following Trump’s victory, a rash of reports documented hate-crimes against Muslims, Latinos, and members of the LGBT community, groups that the Republican candidate had rhetorically targeted in his bid for the White House. A few of the more than 1,000 hate-motivated incidents compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center since the election were found to have been created as an act of protest by anti-Trumpers, actions decried by victims’ advocates as delegitimizing the very real accounts of harassment and intimidation of minorities post-Trump. Some of the politically motivated attacks claimed by both sides turned out to be more nuanced upon further inspection. And a few were outright apolitical lies, including an 18-year-old New York student who claimed white Trump supporters harassed her on the subway and tried to ripped off her hijab. The woman later admitted fabricating the incident to evade punishment from her parents for breaking curfew.
Indeed most hoaxes—lies that capture the public’s attention—originate as even the most commonplace lies do, with a self-serving creator. Whether for fame, money, or internet LOLz, 2016 saw no shortage of old-fashioned fabulists.
Perhaps the most depressing single hoax this year came from the lips of a very naughty Tennessee Santa, who, according to reports, likely made up the story of a young boy dying in his arms. Professional Santa Eric Schmitt-Matzen told a local reporter that before the 5-year-old supposedly took his last breath, he said, “When you get [to heaven], you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One Elf, and I know they’ll let you in.”
After the story went viral (because, My God) national reporters contacted the Santa for their own stories. But the boy’s parents and the hospital nurse who allegedly called in Santa were nowhere to be found, and before he could say “Ho, ho, ho,” The News Sentinel was distancing itself from the too-heartbreaking-to-check tale.
Schmitt-Matzen’s was the second Santa hoax to grow legs this season. An earlier story of a Wisconsin mall Santa who beat up a child molester was also proven to have likely never happened.
Of course we want to believe our heroes do heroic things. So U.S. Olympic fans swallowed whole Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s tale of being robbed at gunpoint at the summer games in Rio. Brazilian police quickly disputed the claims, and released video of Lochte and three teammates supporting the police’s version of events: that the athletes had drunkenly damaged a gas station bathroom and scuffled with security guards, then made up a robbery to escape blame.
Perhaps worse than the lie spun out of control was the premeditated hoax, perpetrated by people looking to make a buck or a name for themselves. And advertisers were the worst, justifying duplicitous campaigns as provocative.
Though most companies restrict their overly clever brand hoaxes to April Fool’s Day, Lyst, an online retailer of very expensive clothing, held off until May to unveil its new puppy retail store, where, it claimed, shoppers could “compliment your summer outfit with a four-legged friend.” Angry pet owners and animal rights groups rallied against the outlet, crying “pets are not accessories!” The next day, the retail site was topped with “Of course you can’t buy puppies and dogs here, we sell clothes not canines… A dog is for life, not just for Instagram.”
American Eagle chose April 1, to come clean about its men’s plus-sized underwear line which the internet collectively applauded and Mic named the “campaign we’ve all been waiting for.” Sadly for dadbods everywhere, it never was. “We aren’t afraid of being bold in how we engage our customers,” American Eagle president Chad Kessler said in a statement that managed to be more ridiculous than the initial campaign.
A more noble hoax came in the form of an Instagram account belonging to fake Parisian party girl, Louise Delage.” Over the course of a summer, the account garnered over 100,000 followers who consistently “liked” photos of the woman who almost always seemed to have an alcoholic drink in hand. In a final video revealing the themselves as the content’s creators, the French organization Addict Aide, noted, “It’s easy to miss the addiction of someone close.”
Still not everyone on the back end of a hoax was trying to sell us something. In a year when our most beloved icons actually died, the seemingly purposeless celebrity death hoax was alive and well. If hoax clouds have silver linings, perhaps one can be found in the fact that George Soros, Sylvester Stallone, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Stan Lee, Mr. T, John Madden, Adele, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey are still with us.
And one uncovered hoax, seems to have put a little magic back into the world in a year when we desperately need it.
In January of this year, Gothamist reported the existence of a performance artist called Zardulu, who it seems is responsible for some of the most viral photos and internet videos of our time. The beloved video, now viewed almost 10 million times, of a rat dragging an entire piece of pizza down the subway steps in an endeavor that somehow illustrated the human condition? That was Zardulu.
Other known Zardulu works—elaborately planned videos that usually include some taxidermied animals and unwitting participants—include a three-eyed catfish pulled from the Gowanus Canal and, or so one former collaborator claims, the Montauk Monster, a terrifying still-unidentified carcass photographed on the shore of a New York beach.
In a year where everyone—from kids in Macedonia to YouTube “stars” to the future president of the United States—lied to us for profit, Zardulu created art for art’s sake, an effort Finn Brunton, an assistant professor of media at New York University told The New York Times, “seems to be closer to doing magic.”
In a conversation via Twitter direct message, Zardulu told me, “I am so excited for the election to be over. There’s going to be a huge vacancy in news. Be assured, I’ll be working…”
And so hope remains for 2017.