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'Fake News' strikes again: WI mall Santa did not 'beat up' molester

Another popular social media story turns out to be false.

Did you happen to see that story about a Milwaukee-area mall Santa who roughed up a child molester on behalf of a victimized child?

You already see where this is going. Like a lot of other social media news this year, it was too good to be true.

It went something like this: kid sits on Santa Claus's lap at Southridge Mall in Greendale, Wisconsin, says all she wants for Christmas is for her stepdad to "stop touching her at night," so Santa leaps into action and gives the molester a serious butt-whooping.

It's inspiring, it's heroic, and it made for a welcome headline in a year full of grim ones. The story went viral on social media, but according to the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune, it's totally false.

Local authorities told the AP they've never heard of the "police spokeswoman" quoted in the story, while the mall itself confirmed none of it happened.

The AP also says it could find no court records corroborating anything in the article.

The story was "widely" shared after being posted on sites like thuglifevideos.com, dirtpost.com and goingviralposts.biz.

The 'fake news' problem

You've probably heard a lot about the rise of "fake news" lately. The Santa story seems to be the latest example in a year full of them.

Some other big hits, according to a Newser piece on the most shared fake news stories of 2016, are President Obama banning the pledge of allegiance from schools (false), Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president (also false), and a woman pooping on her boss's desk after winning the lottery (nope).

Fake news is not only annoying, but may also present some real problems to us as informed citizens and voters.

As PBS Newshour points out, there are concerns such stories may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, with recent research finding that social engagement (i.e. interest in a particular news item) was "much higher for the fake sources than the real ones" in nearly two dozen cases this year.

PBS admits, though, that the full extent of the impact of false news on the election is "unclear" at this point.

Nonetheless, the problem is so widespread Facebook recently took some unprecedented steps in combatting it. Those include adding features that let users report fake news, working with outside fact-checking groups, and slapping "warnings" on any suspicious stories.

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