Viral Outrage and Holiday Hoaxes
Examples of past controversies and the vulnerable groups they target
In the lead up to Remembrance Day, Canadians got to enjoy a fresh wave of outrage over rainbow poppies. This was, of course, a hoax – no official organizations or groups were distributing rainbow poppies or had approved of the design, and the offending item was instead being produced and sold by a single person on eBay – but the damage was done. The hoax was spread across social media and people flew into outrage, accusing the MOGAI community of overstepping and, in some cases, spewing outright homophobic rhetoric. (Cooke 2019; Currie, Neufeld, MacMahon 2019)
This type of falsified controversy isn’t new, nor is it unique to Remembrance Day. As Christmas nears, we can expect to see a new wave of drama and outrage over issues that are blown wildly out of proportion, taken out of context, or just flat out aren’t real.
Recent years provide us with numerous examples of such hoaxes, and looking back might be helpful in understanding what they look like and what consequences these hoaxes can have for vulnerable communities.
1) The LGBTQ Community Wants a Gender Neutral Santa
Last year, a story was circulating that the MOGAI community had started pushing for Santa to be modernized and given a gender neutral identity (Palma 2018; Earp 2018). This, of course, sparked outrage. Many people viewed this as the MOGAI community shoving their lifestyle down everyone else’s throats, while people within the community cited this as an effort from trolls to pit the public against non-binary people (Earp 2018).
The truth is that the data was taken out of context and blown out of proportion. A graphic design company known as GraphicSprings had put out a survey to a small number of respondents, asking many leading questions about ways Santa might be modernized. One question pertained to what gender a modern Santa would have, with three options: male, female, and gender neutral. About 17% of respondents selected a gender neutral Santa, while 72% still opted for a male Santa (Palma 2018; Earp 2018).
The survey was not intended to be representative or academic in any way – it was conducted by a graphic design company, most likely as a publicity stunt intended to feed off of viral outrage by stirring up controversy (Palma 2018; Earp 2018). And it worked.
The story blew up, spreading far and wide and mutating into yet more falsehoods. Articles came out claiming huge numbers of people were fighting for Santa’s gender to be changed, headlines claimed that Santa was going to be made gender neutral, and hate and belligerence was fired at the MOGAI community as a result (Earp 2018).
2) Starbucks Hates Jesus
I’m sure many people remember the Starbucks cup outrage of 2015, but for those who aren’t familiar or are fuzzy on the details: Starbucks has special designs for their disposable cups during the holiday season, and in 2015 they did away with the usual snowmen and reindeer in favour of a more minimalist ombréd red (Evon 2015; Abad-Santos 2016).
That doesn’t sound like something that could be particularly offensive, but it definitely was. People claimed that the simple design and lack of classic symbols of Christmas represented a cleansing of Christianity and an indication that the company was anti-Christmas (Evon 2015; Abad-Santos 2016). In a viral video, one man claimed that employees of Starbucks were forbidden from wishing customers a “Merry Christmas” and that the chain openly hated Jesus (Evon 2015; Abad-Santos 2016).
This is clearly false and misrepresents (or perhaps misremembers) Starbuck’s past cup designs – none of which featured the word “Christmas” and instead were vaguely festive and winter-themed, with images of things like snowmen or children sledding (Abad-Santos 2016).
The controversy only becomes hilarious when you realize that Starbucks does still blatantly celebrate and cater to Christmas. They sell ornaments and advent calendars specifically for the holiday (Abad-Santos 2016). So the outrage targeted the cups and failed to account for anything else in the store.
3) Muslims are Offended by Public Celebrations of Christmas
The Muslim community is frequently declared as the cause for various companies or communities doing way with certain holiday traditions, from the word “Christmas” being forbidden and replaced by “Holiday” to carolling supposedly being banned in schools (Ahmed 2017). According to these accusations, Muslims are offended by Christmas and want to see it banned, all as part of a broader attack on Christians and Christianity (Ahmed 2017; York 2015; Charles 2018).
Of course, none of this is true. Many Muslim families love and celebrate Christmas, enjoying it as a time to see distant family and enjoy delicious food (Ahmed 2017). There is no anti-Christian push from Muslim communities or organizations to ban or censor the holiday, nor is there any ire toward the presence of Christmas trees, Christmas carols, or other festive symbols (Ahmed 2017; York 2015).
4) There is a war on Christmas and saying “Merry Christmas”
Time and time again, you’ll hear people say that political correctness has robbed people of the right to say “Merry Christmas”, or that stores force their staff to say “Happy Holidays”. There is, allegedly, a war on Christmas, and a corresponding rallying cry across social media to resist so-called efforts to obliterate the holiday (Emery 2017; Charles 2018; Ahmed 2017).
This particular source of outrage is far from new – in fact, it has existed in one form or another since at least the 1920s. (Emery 2017) Most of this panic comes from Christian groups; those who celebrate the holiday in a primarily secular fashion are unlikely to consider Christmas under attack. (Emery 2017) The conspiracy is recurring and somewhat cyclical, “[flaring] up when anxieties about immigration, secularization, and other perceived threats to the established social order increase” (Emery 2017).
There is never proper evidence behind claims that “Merry Christmas” has been banned or Facebook forbids photos of nativity scenes, but this doesn’t stop the anger and outrage from spreading, nor does it stop people from directing their outrage toward innocent parties – specifically, immigrants and religions minorities, especially Muslim communities (Emery 2017; Charles 2018; Ahmed 2017). Like most examples, this outrage is more about the people being accused of crossing a line than it is about the line that has supposedly been crossed.
Abad-Santos, Alex. 2016. “Starbucks’s Red Cup Controversy, Explained.” Vox. Retrieved November 27, 2019 (https://www.vox.com/2015/11/10/9707034/starbucks-red-cup-controversy).
Ahmed, Nilufar. 2017. “Muslims Can and Do Celebrate a Traditional Christmas – It’s Time to Accept This and Move On.” Independent. Retrieved November 26, 2019 (https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/tesco-christmas-advert-muslim-family-turkey-holiday-islamophobia-a8052666.html).
Charles, Craig. 2018. “Has ‘Merry Christmas’ Been Banned in Favor of ‘Happy Holidays’? Fact Check.” That’s Nonsense. Retrieved November 28, 2019 (https://www.thatsnonsense.com/has-merry-christmas-been-banned-in-favor-of-happy-holidays-fact-check/).
Cooke, Phoebe. 2019. “Seeing Red: What is the LGBT Rainbow Poppy and Why is it Controversial?” The Sun. Retrieved November 27, 2019 (https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/10283341/lgbt-rainbow-poppy-remembrance-day/).
Currie, Espe, Mark Neufeld, and Martin MacMahon. 2019. “Upset About the Rainbow Poppy? You’ve Been Duped by Fake News.” City News. Retrieved November 27, 2019 (https://edmonton.citynews.ca/2019/11/08/upset-about-the-rainbow-poppy-youve-been-duped-by-fake-news/).
Earp, Joseph. 2018. “Surprise! That ‘People Want Santa to be Gender Neutral’ Story is Bullshit.” Junkee. Retrieved November 26, 2019 (https://junkee.com/santa-gender-neutral-story/187123).
Emery, David. 2017. “A History of the ‘War on Christmas’.” Snopes. Retrieved November 26, 2019 (https://www.snopes.com/news/2017/11/29/the-war-on-christmas/).
Evon, Dan. 2015. “The War on Christmas Cups.” Snopes. Retrieved November 26, 2019 (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/starbucks-red-christmas-cups/).
Palma, Bethania. 2018. “Did a Survey Reveal That People Want a ‘Gender Neutral’ Santa Claus?” Snopes. Retrieved November 26, 2019 (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/gender-neutral-santa-survey/).
York, Chris. 2015. “Muslim Man Riaz Khan Explains Why Muslims Don’t Want to Ban Christmas.” Huffington Post. Retrieved November 28, 2019 (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/12/15/muslim-man-riaz-kahn-ban-christmas_n_8809220.html?guccounter=1).