A story published on a satirical news site resulted in an elementary school in San Francisco being harassed with an overabundance phone calls and emails.
The National Report, which describes itself as “a news and political satire web publication,” ran a story on Dec. 11 with the headline “9-Year-Old Suspended For Saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”
The story stated that a student named Timothy Dawkins at “Argon Elementary School” in San Francisco was suspended for a week after he wished an atheist teacher named Paul Horner a “merry Christmas.”
“The ‘war on Christmas’ continues as a simple well-wishing of ‘Merry Christmas’ has led to big trouble for one fourth-grade San Francisco boy this week,” said the first line of the article.
As of Wednesday morning, at least 20,000 people have clicked “like’ and “share” on the National Report’s Facebook page, and nearly 400 tweets connected to the original story on Twitter.
Dozens of websites also picked up the story, many of them Conservative, that repeated the line that the incident was yet another example of the “War on Christmas.”
In reality, the school, the student and the teacher don’t exist. As a matter of fact, the name Paul Horner shows up in several of the stories posted on National Report, such as story published Wednesday titled “California’s Mega Millions Winner First To Come Forward,” that states that “35-year-old Paul Horner from San Jose, California” was the winner of the $636 million Mega Millions jackpot.
But there is an Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco, and in the days following the story’s publication online, school officials have been bombarded with nasty phone calls and emails — mostly from non-California residents — talking about the War on Christmas and bashing San Francisco’s liberal reputation.
On Wednesday, KTVU spoke to Jacob Strohm, a teacher and parent at the school who said he answered many of the angry phone calls.
“I would assure them that story wasn’t true but opinions of our city must be true or sort of true,” said Strohm.
Along with the nasty comments were also threats, which led to school administrators to hold an emergency meeting where it was decided they would beef up staff and hire an extra security officer, which is being paid for by San Francisco taxpayers.
Police have also beefed up patrols on and around campus, just as a safety precaution.
Cami Okubo, the school’s principal, told KTVU that the hoax has taken time away from the students and that it what is so frustrating.
Two days after the story was published, Okubo issued an explanation on the school’s website.
“I am writing to inform you that a news story was published stating that a fourth grade student from ArgonElementary in San Francisco was suspended for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to a teacher,” Okubo wrote. “The incident did not occur at our school, ArgonneElementary or any school in the San Francisco Unified School District.”
According to school officials, some of the school’s parents also tried to post on the National Report story comments explaining that this incident never happened at their school, but all of those posts were rejected.
In the days since the fake story’s publication, the name of the school changed to “Anon Elementary School” and a Reddit user claiming to be the author of the story took questions on a Reddit thread titled “Hoax About Atheist Teacher Suspending Student Who Said ‘Merry Christmas’ Goes Viral.”
On the thread, Reddit user “sosososofunny,” who linked to a page listing his name as Paul Horner, admitted that he was purposefully trying to trick readers into believing the stories and that “a fun target” for his satirical articles “is the bible-thumping-tea-party-racist.”
“People that are anti-Obama will pass along anything as real news whether it’s real, fake or exaggerated. They think twice after passing along a fake story after they get berated by people,” said the Reddit poster who identified himself as Paul Horner. “Most of my stories have no part in this. I just started doing this as the tea party members, living in their echo chambers, have turned their crazy levels way up.”
But Horner also pointed out that a quick Google search will lead to a disclaimer on the site that reads:
“National Report is, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news.”
As for the parents’ claims that their comments on the story stating that it was false were being deleted, the Reddit user admitted that they were.
“The entertainment, in my opinion, is the comments. Every story I write has a goal of some kind. I feel the comments are part of my story,” said Horner. “I moderate all the comments and will delete ones that don’t go along with my story – such as calling it a hoax etc.”
As for the story’s negative impact on the school, Horner denied culpability.
“Never once did I write about a school named Argonne. I feel no remorse or responsibility for the Christian fanatics that harassed the good people at that school,” said Horner. “I didn’t know Christians would get as crazy as they did even though the school in my story was Argon Elementary – which doesn’t exist. Once we got a complaint from Argonne Elementary I immediately changed the name to Anon Elementary. I also went through all 200 comments and deleted any that referenced ‘Argonne’ or ‘Argon’.”
On a nice note, the people who called the school to complain, many of them wished everyone here at Argonne Elementary a “merry Christmas.”