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04

Dec

When is a hoax not a hoax? A Christmas story

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The “Letter to Santa” above is courtesy Zack Poitras and The Inclusive with their actual permission asked in advanced (which turns out is pretty rare). 

Zack Poitras may be among the greatest pranksters of the digital age. On Monday, the New York-based comedian managed to fool The Huffington Post, Mashable, BuzzFeed, The Daily Mirror and dozens of other media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

And the best part was that he wasn’t even trying.

Two years ago, he created a fake letter to Santa from a fictional child, scrawled in crayon and appearing to be in a child’s handwriting – which the left-handed Poitras achieved by using his right hand – that provided St. Nick an Amazon link to a remote-control car that the kid wanted for Christmas.

Poitras said he used to write letters to Santa as a child that would include directions to the stores where the toys he wanted could be found and figured today’s kids would probably use Amazon instead.

The piece went up on the humor section of The Inclusive, a site ran by his college friend, Mike Anton, in 2011. I attended Boston University with both of them and also regularly contributed to the site.  

Few people saw the mock letter and Anton stopped adding new material to the site last year, but kept the archive online.

But on Monday,  a Twitter user in Germany, @Gequeoman, discovered the image of the letter and tweeted it.  Before long it had made the homepages of The Huffington Post and Yahoo News.

Two problems: none of these sites credited Poitras or The Inclusive, and many assumed it was an actual child who wrote the letter.

Thus began a 12-hour stretch in which Anton and other former The Inclusive editors used Google to track where the image had been reposted, sending tweets and emails to the reporters and news outlets to demand Poitras get credit.

Anton was shocked by the attention the letter got. “It’s bizarre because we’ve been dead.”

But he was even more shocked by the laziness of the journalism he saw from professional news sites. 

When he was running his amateur site Anton tried his “damnedest” to properly cite any image taken from Creative Commons and other open sources. “To see other people not do that, at places that are much more reputable, was really disheartening,” Anton said.

“BuzzFeed just ripped the image wholly,” he said.

Even after Poitras was getting credit on The Huffington Post and Yahoo, which Anton said responded to his emails quickly, factual errors remained.

The Huffington Post’s article continued to say the letter had been written by a child, giving Poitras credit for discovering it.

London’s Daily Mirror stated, “Whether the product exists or whether the person who wrote the note is legit or not is something of a Christmas mystery.” 

The product does indeed exist. Reddit users confirmed that by simply typing the link text into their browsers. 

“The thing I like about satire,” Poitras said, “is you’ve got to treat it as real as possible.”

Poitras was far less angered than his editor, finding the conjecture about whether the child would receive his gift pretty hilarious.

“It’s a better story if it’s a mystery,” Poitras said.

A Good Morning America producer called him to schedule a possible interview, but stopped calling upon finding out that Poitras had written the letter. Poitras joked he should’ve found a kid to play his brother.

Mashable interviewed Poitras and posted a story Wednesday titled “Kid’s Santa Letter With the Amazon Link Was a Hoax,” despite the fact that Poitras had told the reporter that he never set out to prank anyone.

“It was picked up on several news sites, including Mashable, that assumed the letter was the work of a kid, in part due to the sloppy crayon handwriting,” wrote reporter Neka Prakash.

“It’s a self-imposed hoax,” said Anton, who tweeted at Prakash that the letter was the work of a comedian on Monday evening when her original report was published and erroneously credited the work to a mystery child despite several other news outlets already updating stories to credit Poitras.

Unfortunately, it looks like Prakash and the other reporters who posted the story Monday forgot Rule No. 1 of journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. 

-Bryan Lowry