Our "Most Popular Legends of 2015" round-up catalogs the most widely read and shared items of urban legendry in 2015, but a handful of elements characterize the predominant themes of the year in rumors, misinformation, hoaxes, and other odd tales.
By many accounts 2015 was an eventful year, and frequently in an uncomfortable way. ABC's 2015 retrospective kicked off with a morose description, musing that:
From start to finish, many of this year's biggest news stories were centered around violence, terror threats or a general sense of fear.
The year began with a targeted terror strike in Paris and closed out with another planned attack in California, proving that threats around the globe remain an issue for all.
Humorist Dave Barry was slightly less measured in tone, summing up the events of the year thusly:
We apologize, but 2015 had so many negatives that we're having trouble seeing the positives. It's like we're on the Titanic, and it's tilting at an 85-degree angle with its propellers way up in the air, and we're dangling over the cold Atlantic trying to tell ourselves: "At least there's no waiting for the shuffleboard courts!"
Are we saying that 2015 was the worst year ever? Are we saying it was worse than, for example, 1347, the year when the Bubonic Plague killed a large part of humanity?
Yes, we are saying that. Because at least the remainder of humanity was not exposed to a solid week in which the news media focused intensively on the question of whether a leading candidate for president of the United States had, or had not, made an explicit reference to a prominent female TV journalist's biological lady cycle.
It's certainly true that anxiety, phobia, and a general sense of impending doom permeated 2015. January's Charlie Hebdo massacre rang in the year in an unpleasant fashion. Americans didn't need a reminder to be fearful, but the bloodshed in Paris (repeated on a larger scale that November) that bookended 2015 was a factor in what would become one of the year's most pervasive rumor topics.
Islamic State militants (commonly called "ISIS" in the United States) were already lurking menacingly in the margins even before the January 2015 attacks in Paris. A few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, social media users spread tales that Jordan's King Abdullah II had taken it upon himself to personally secure revenge for the murder of a Jordanian pilot. People feared ISIS operatives were parked on the U.S. border with Mexico, that they planned to attack en masse on the 4th of July, that they were infiltrating car dealerships, planning shopping mall attacks, assembling a "kill list" of U.S. cities, and plotting to hit the New York City subway system.
Whatever ISIS was planning to do was rivaled by what they had supposedly done, including a widely-reported tale of ISIS operatives feeding the remains of a slain man to his mother, killing puppies, recruiting children, immolating caged children, euthanizing disabled babies and toddlers, and condemning the sight of pigeon genitalia.
Rumors urged Americans to be vigilant, claiming ISIS militants were already poised to strike on U.S. soil. Military families in particular were pegged as targets, identified by ISIS through the general use of social media or by display of Facebook avatars supporting the victims of the November 2015 Paris attack. Christians were warned to keep an eye out for strange markings on their homes and driveways identifying them as ISIS targets.
So brazen were these ISIS operatives that they were rumored to have held a pro-themselves demonstration on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, the epicenter of imaginary ISIS activity in America. If that wasn't bad enough, our own President was said to have warned ISIS of airstrikes before bombing the radical militant group's oil trucks in Syria.
Not all ISIS rumors were of the abject terror variety. Some ancillary ISIS scuttlebutt held that, Amazon openly sold ISIS flags, Walmart showed their Islamic State leanings via a decorated cake, and (not to be outdone) Coca-Cola emblazoned bottles with an encouragement to "Share a Coke with ISIS." And some Internet users were comforted by the claim that legendary drug lord El Chapo had set his sights on ISIS.
Fallout from fears over Islamic State activity led to another broad set of fear-based rumors.
An extremely condensed version of world events holds ISIS responsible for what became a mass exodus of residents from disputed areas of Syria. In 2015, Syrian refugees gave modern social media users a taste of what it was like to live in an openly xenophobic past.
Comparisons were made to Jewish refugees before World War II. The Internet learned Anne Frank's father Otto desperately tried (but failed) to secure safe passage for his family to the United States before his daughters died in the Holocaust, and that Dr. Seuss had strong opinions on jingoistic fear.
A photo of a Syrian toddler "surrendering" to a camera moved readers, staged footage of a "hero boy" amid violent outbreaks in that country less so. Memes claimed that Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee, and therefore without immigration you would likely be reading this article on a Nokia brick phone.
But 2015 wasn't the start of the woes for Syria's children (or adults.) As a number of social media rumors illustrated, graphic images of the dead in Syria were circulated online, often repurposed by unethical web sites to generate click-throughs from social media. Not all rumors were sympathetic to Syria's youth, and many accused asylum seekers of insufficient gratitude.
Tales filtered in over Facebook about havoc supposedly wrought by Syrian refugees in Poland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, but the vast majority of those reports contained information that was misleading or downright false. Some Americans conflated the word "refugee" with "immigrant," claiming that several killers of innocent Americans were once refugees, too — and that 72 Department of Homeland Security employees were included on terror watch lists.
In some imaginings, waves of Syrian refugees had already crashed ashore in the United States, either via a porous border with Mexico, on secret UPS flights, riding odd white buses in the South, or through the generosity of President Obama.
Refugees were rumored to have landed in New Orleans and North Carolina, blatantly flouting the hospitality of the country that so graciously welcomed them. But while Saudi Arabia wasn't doing a damn thing to help Syrian refugees, Americans feared they were carrying exotic diseases (worse than Ebola and AIDS!), resented their stays in luxury hotels, and opined that they didn't look so hungry anyway.
But without Syrian refugees to blame, it's unlikely another popular rumor topic would have been as frequently discussed:
The race to the White House in 2016 was barely underway when Donald Trump swept in and stole the hearts of many conservative voters. For a man whose wives were two-thirds immigrant, Trump had a lot to say about America's fear of foreign invasion.
Trump was accused of suggesting Muslims wear ID badges, of wanting to shut down the internet to stop terrorism, and reigniting a long-debunked claim that Muslims in America cheered the September 11th attacks (by the thousands) in public as the towers fell. Noises were made about disqualification from the Presidential race based upon those interlinked controversies. Some social media users asserted Islam was banned in the United States under a 1952 law, while others countered that former president Jimmy Carter was just as hostile to Iranians as Trump proposed being to Muslims.
Through it all Trump was neither removed from the ballots nor ducked out of the race, though he did inadvertently use Nazi imagery in promotional material and uncomfortably complimented his daughter Ivanka.
Trump's outsized personality generated a wealth of exaggerated or outright fabricated tales including rumors that his grandfather was a pimp, that his supporters were borderline illiterate, that he called Republicans "stupid," that he planned to nominate a "shock jock" for director of the National Institutes of Health, that his branded merchandise was made in China, that his rise to political fame was predicted by an old Simpsons episode, that he told black people to go back to Africa, that he was sued by R.E.M., that he offered to pay the legal fees of Cecil the Lion's killer, and that he said Puerto Ricans were his least favorite Mexicans.
But Donald Trump wasn't the only vector for American freakouts in 2015.
Americans grew somewhat suspicious when multiple Walmarts simultaneously closed in April 2015, especially when "plumbing problems" was the reason given for the sudden shutterings. To many, it all made sense when Jade Helm '15 (a military training exercise in the southwestern United States, often just referenced as "Jade Helm") hit the conspiracy-hungry social web.
No one quite understood what Jade Helm was meant to be as a threat, but residents of Bastrop, Texas, became so agitated that a high-ranking military official had to go down and attempt to quell panic. It didn't help. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lastoria fielded questions, accusations, and conspiracy theories in a heated 27 April 2015 town hall meeting in Bastrop:
Lastoria noted that Texas in the past has been hospitable to military training efforts. Misinformation spread by people with a particular ideology, he said, is the reason for the change in attitude.
“Texans are historically supportive of these efforts to prepare our troops,” he said. “People want to make this something that it is not.”
One attendee asked, “When we have a federal government that cannot tell the truth, how do we know that what you’re saying is true?” In response, Lastoria said that the operation was a product of the Army, not politics.
“You may have issues with the administration. So be it. But this institution right here has been with you for over 200 years,” he said. “I’ve worn this uniform across five different administrations for 27 years.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a letter ordering his law enforcement agents to "monitor" American military maneuvers, lest the federal government step in to command control of a state already under its jurisdiction. It was no surprise when the first fake Jade Helm death rumor popped up in that very state, at a Walmart, naturally.
Civilians took it upon themselves to keep a close eye on these "American forces" carrying out military exercises in the Homeland; some became so paranoid it was difficult to separate the true believers from the parodies.
But September 2015 came and went, and along with it the state of Texas and the rest of the South remained free of FEMA camps and weren't subject to gun grabs — nor did a comet mark the end of the exercise.
Although Jade Helm ended with nary a black bagging, an element of it carried on.
Imaginary Offense and Persecution
While fearing ISIS, Syrians, and a governmental invasion, some Americans also found time to entertain their personal concerns about political correctness gone amok. A host of fake news sites capitalized on this particular windmill-tilting with fabricated claims about priests arrested for refusing to perform gay weddings, transgender tampons, liquor bans in Dearborn (thanks to Sharia law, of course), Christian divorces caused by gays marrying, a petition to replace the stars and stripes with a rainbow pride flag, and millions of dollars in donations for suspected Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.
Also shady were ambiguous, possibly confabulated viral tales of a "relentlessly gay" yard and a nightmare social network called "Peeple" (from which we haven't heard a peeple since.) But mostly when social media wasn't inventing moral threats to be frightened by, it was fabricating animosity aimed at "traditional American values."
Among "fake bans" in 2015 was a broad-ranging one involving everything American at a New York City school, general Christmas at several Simon malls, American flag gear at high school football games, candy for kids wearing ableist costumes, gestapo-like HOAs, Halloween because it offended imaginary Muslims, bacon that smelled like bacon in workplaces, the adopted flag of the Tea Party, all military uniforms, and the Dukes of Hazzard.
According to rumor, President Obama basically banned every single element of Christmas individually, particularly involving US troops. Todd Starnes had a lot to say about it, and Charlie Brown had an uncharacteristically lively year in 2015.
Grinched again by who else but President Obama?
While those five topics just scratched the surface of rumors and other buzzed-about topics in 2015, they were the ones most consistently dogging our inbox this year.
It is worth noting that for all the breathless, dire, "breaking" warnings disseminated in 2015, not one of the year's large catastrophes (such as Charlie Hebdo, the November Paris attacks, the Planned Parenthood shooting, or the San Bernardino massacre) were predicted by social media rumors.