Fake News, Witches, and Contemporary Legends

“The quickest, most direct way to ruin a democracy is to poison the information.”            – Scott Pelley, announcer and managing editor of CBS Evening News, in his acceptance speech for Arizona State Univ’s Walter Cronkite Award, Nov. 2016.

In April 2017, I taught a two-session course in GoldLEAF, the elder college at the University of Maine, Farmington, entitled “Fake News, Witches, and Contemporary Legends.”

If you would like to see my syllabus and have access to the digital reading materials I used, please email me, tell me about yourself, how you plan to use the materials, and I will add your email address to the wiki I used (at pbworks.com).  myocomATgmu.edu

I began designing this course when I became increasingly disturbed about the proliferation of fake news, often in story form, distributed by the current administration and its supporters.

I shared with prospective students my take on fake news and contemporary legends: If we know more about contemporary legends with their ages-old traditional motifs–and their new twists on those motifs, we will be better able to spot fake news reports. The legend motifs and the issues that these complex (though simple-seeming) stories raise often point to what is questionable in fake news. So, if we hear that microwaves have us under surveillance and we know about contemporary legends that circulate about microwave ovens and / or new technologies, we will be ready to question that bit of fakery.

Here’s my official course proposal:

“Satanists!” several “news” sites have screamed recently. In December 2016, both Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were accused of witchcraft, satanic rituals, and managing child pornography sites. Such charges are not new, only the names of the accused have changed. And these charges—tucked into rumors and stories and circulated on social media–are far from benign: consider the attack on a Washington DC café by a man convinced by “fake news” of Clinton/Podesta’s guilt. What can the field of Folklore Studies offer to us as we sift through what has happened and what has not? Why are contemporary legends the most shared form of stories today? We’ll read and discuss materials from news stories, and we’ll consider the lore of witches and the insights of contemporary legends that whisper of satanic panics, stolen human organs, baby thefts, the intentional spread of diseases, and more all over our country—and the world. We’ll share our own experiences and the stories we’ve heard. And, we’ll do all this around one of the most powerful times of the spirit world’s yearly cycle: Walpurgis Night, 30 April.

My bio for the course: Folklorist Dr. Margaret “Peggy” Yocom is Associate Professor Emerita from George Mason University where she founded the Folklore Studies Program and taught for 36 years. A resident of Farmington, her specialties include folktales, the supernatural, and the traditions of western Maine, where she has done field research since 1975.