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What killer clowns can teach us about #fakenews

In Margaret Atwood’s Canadian classic Bodily Harm, Rennie is a lifestyle journalist who writes about trends that don’t exist to see if she can make them exist by writing about them. She’ll do an article on ‘drain-chain’ jewellery then snicker every time she sees a woman with a bath plug chain looped around her neck. Even when Rennie’s editors suspect her trend isn’t real, they go along with it, half-believing that whatever she has to say on her subject will eventually come true.

I think of drain-chains every time I see a story on evil clowns.

According to this week's news cycle, 'Creepy Clowns' are lurking in playgrounds, near dumpsters, in McDonald drive-thrus, and on the outskirts of the woods, waving down local children with machetes. The phenomenon has been reported in the US, Great Britain, Australia and Canada too. Entire towns are on edge, and the police are issuing stern warnings.

The thing is: confirmed sightings are rare, and the authorities are having trouble finding even a single clown to question.

So why won’t the story just die? Because a non-existent trend can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like The Boogeyman, if we believe and repeat its name enough, it will appear. Next time you read an article about killer clowns (or any craze of dubious origin) ask yourself: does this story really exist? Here are three signs a trend isn’t all it’s hyped up to be:

1. Headlines and source quotes revolve around emotion and speculation versus actual occurrences. “Minnesota Police Chief has a stern message for creepy clowns.” “Terrified parents say children have been spooked by rumours of killer clowns.” “Store owner concerned by spike in clown costume sales.”

2. The news item piggybacks on past events to bolster a weak storyline or manufacture a local angle. “The so-called ‘creepy clown’ sightings have spread across more than 20 U.S. states and parts of Canada…" "Over the weekend CHCH news received two emails warning of clown sightings in the east end.”

3. The story is conspicuously seasonal. Although the Creepy Clown trend started in August, when it reportedly spread from South Carolina to Upstate New York, the story has gained traction and new life over the past week. What’s more, some of the same media outlets that are milking the story for all it’s worth are sagely predicting that the fad will fade once Halloween is over.

And trust me: it will. Just in time for Christmas.

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