The year that wasn't: 2016 as told by 120 fake news stories

This year, nearly everyone met an untimely end. Fortunately they had clones or body doubles -- or a new sitcom in the case of the Dalai Lama.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
11 min read

The lines between reality, satire, propaganda and flat-out made-up news have blurred for years, but in 2016 we occupied an alternate universe built on hoaxes. In this bizarro world, political adversaries resemble comic book villains, a large space rock threatens Earth and one celebrity dies daily as another moves to your town.

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"What has made 'fake news' so visible this year is that it appears to have played a role in an important national election," said Donald J. Leu, director of The New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut.


This year, gullibles believed fake or misleading stories about killer clowns, kale-cannabis crossbreeds and cloned candidates, often published as click-bait lies to serve up ads. Social media then spread the misinterpreted, politicized and sensationalized headlines across the web, especially on Facebook.

"It was a breakout year because social media has really come into its own in terms of scope and maturity," said Angie Drobnic Holan, an editor at PolitiFact, which fact-checks US politics. "Four years ago, we weren't at the same level in terms of ease and ubiquity of sharing. Also, we had an election that reached new lows for exaggerations and distortions."

This look back at the year that was, therefore, comes with a twist: We relied solely on fake news stories to reconstruct the year's (alleged) insanity.

Editors' note: To reiterate, our review consists entirely of fake news stories (except where noted) that spread online roughly according to the following timeline. While most names and bits of context are real, each story was determined to be false by a reputed fact-checking site like Snopes, PolitiFact or FactCheck.org.


The law says it should be called "Nosplay!"

James Martin/CNET/Eric Mack

January: Pardoned Bill Cosby dies

The world learned from the fake news universe that troubled comedy legend Bill Cosby had taken his own life one day after President Obama officially pardoned him for all past and future crimes.

Other notable personalities who were said to have passed included Sean Penn, Chevy Chase, Keith Richards and fellow rock legend Animal from the Muppets. We learned from Pat Robertson that David Bowie had not died, but was instead kidnapped by demons to perform in hell.

In fake politics, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau banned Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from entering Canada. With tensions running high across the continent, President Obama fake-signed an executive order limiting US gun owners to only three guns.

Even wannabe superheroes found themselves powerless to act as five US states moved to outlaw cosplay.

February: No more New Mexico

Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton was allegedly arrested for deliberately throwing Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos.

There was still plenty of room for fake politics, though. Would-be Republican nominee Donald Trump doubled-down on his Mexican border wall plan by promising to rename one state.

"When I get in there, New Mexico is gone," Trump said.

Trump also supposedly compared himself to Jesus Christ, declaring he could save America "without some silly cross."

President Obama supposedly signed an executive order to remove the phrase "under God" from the US pledge of allegiance. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker was said to propose a saliva test to determine that poor people are actually hungry before they can use food stamps.

There was also plenty of reason for fiction-induced anxiety in everyday life with Zika virus being spread by genetically modified mosquitoes, the discovery that solar panels are draining the sun of its energy, a Nazi submarine in the Great Lakes and Central Park cannibals high on meth from labs exploded by flatulence.

March: Legal heroin and "people nuggets"

Controversial pharmaceuticals profiteer Martin Shkreli was reported gunned down in a drive-by shooting and the murder victims of a brutal drug smuggling ring wound up in "chicken nuggets" sold by fast-food chains.


Martin Shkreli

Video screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

In fake entertainment news, Cameron Diaz was named lead in a musical about Maya Angelou as other celebrities began relocating, en masse, to small towns, perhaps in response to news New York state had legalized heroin.

US Sen. Elizabeth Warren shocked Democrats by endorsing Bernie Sanders for her party's nomination as Sanders called for a "more environmentally friendly chemtrails program."

The same month, Hillary Clinton pledged to shut down the National Rifle Association and ban handguns. Meanwhile, President Obama was photographed smiling while holding a T-shirt of Che Guevara. On the Republican side of the race, Donald Trump continued to make waves on social media by tweeting a picture of his private parts.

(Editors' note: We're only 30 fake news stories into our review of the year, and it's time for a quick reminder that none of this stuff actually happened. Reality check: Is it harder to accept that some people believed this stuff or that none of it is true?)

April: The Dalai Lama plays it for laughs

Tragic fake deaths continued when Jim Carrey died in a snowboarding accident. Beloved football coach and commentator John Madden also passed away. A few more violent deaths made headlines when a man in North Carolina and a separate group of KKK members in South Carolina committed suicide in response to the replacement of Andrew Jackson with the likeness of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. And let's not forget the case of the zookeeper killed while trying to do unseemly things to an alligator or the latest instance of drug-related cannibalism.

There was more unbelievable edible news, including the creation of a kale-cannabis hybrid and word that Dasani water had been contaminated with a "clear parasite."

It wasn't all April showers and downers, though. Cher and Robert Plant were engaged to be married and the Dalai Lama announced his upcoming sitcom.

May: Osama bin Laden lives

Dead bodies in Michigan's Flint River were revealed as the phoney cause of water contamination in Michigan. Donald Trump supposedly suggested he might use nuclear weapons against Mexico if the country refused to pay for a border wall before shocking the world with the fabricated admission that his campaign had been all about helping Hillary Clinton win from the start.

Controversial real-life new public-bathroom legislation fake-snagged many celebrities just trying to take a tinkle -- both NFL quarterback Tony Romo and pundit Ann Coulter were arrested for violating the new law. Target, which really did announce an inclusive restroom policy, was really met with a backlash. Then the fake news took over: The retailer responded by banning sales of both the Holy Bible and the American flag. Basketball Legend Michael Jordan threatened to move his team, the Charlotte Hornets, out of North Carolina if the state fails to repeal the new law.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Miami introduced new texting-friendly expressway lanes complete with "safety bumpers" along the sides.

Exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed Osama bin Laden can be found alive and well and presumably soaking up some sun...in the Bahamas.

June: Students support ISIS

As reaction to the mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub (that tragically really happened) dominated headlines, US Sen. Marco Rubio's fake world alter-ego dubiously declared the massacre a sign from God that "he needs me back in the senate."

Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson had a different fake take: "This is how God is punishing us for the shameful SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage," he said. (Note from the real world: this story fooled some real news outlets that picked it up briefly, but it's a total fake.)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a much different invented approach by being photographed kissing House of Commons opposition leader Thomas Mulcair to show support for the victims, most of whom were gay. Still others had a far different reaction in support of the murderer. A candlelight vigil in support of ISIS drew a crowd of 5,000 Los Angeles college students while another group raised almost $90,000 for the shooter's family.

Democrat Bernie Sanders won the California primary by a landslide, but officially lost to Hillary Clinton when two-thirds of his votes weren't counted. Word spread that Mexico would close its border if Trump were elected president, while the candidate himself pledged to close the Library of Congress to cut costs. Meanwhile, a man in Arizona confessed to being paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally.

The news wasn't all bad: Star Wars will soon be filming in your town!

(Editors' note: We're halfway through our review of all the news that didn't happen this year, but some of your fellow humans are convinced it did. Just a reminder that the names and some of the context here are real, but the rest was invented to attract your eyeballs, your ire or your clicks.)

July: Pokemon Go appeals to satanists

Pokemon Go spread like a worldwide digital pandemic (true), often with dire consequences including an imagined stabbing that occurred when one player wandered into a dangerous neighborhood. (Note from the real world: A man actually was stabbed while playing Pokemon in Portland, Ore., four days later.) A Florida teen fake-stabbed his brother to death for apparently deleting his Pokemon app, another teenager was fake-shot when caught trespassing while playing and a man who stopped to catch a Pikachu in the middle of the highway caused a major accident. The game was designed to appeal to satanists and for Japan to map the USto aid in planning a future attack.

Fake NASA warned that rogue planet Nibiru was on a collision course with Earth, just days before a separate massive asteroid was also set to hit our planet.

In put-on politics, Pope Francis made the unusual move of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, not long after endorsing Donald Trump and several months after initially endorsing Bernie Sanders.

The year's wackiest 'evidence' aliens and UFOs are real (pictures)

See all photos

August: Stephen King takes over 'Stranger Things'

The United States moved to curb the less-than-real lethal impact of Pokemon Go by banning the popular game. President Obama, who earlier in this review sought to edit the pledge of allegiance, went a step further and banned it altogether. The president made more waves with his plan to move to Canada should Donald Trump succeed him. For his part, Donald Trump decided to punch further up, turning his Twitter ire on God. God responded by sending some Oklahoma residents on a 130-mile tornado ride.

In Russia, whistle-blower Edward Snowden was killed in a knife fight. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Hollywood Star Angelina Jolie also suffered untimely deaths in August. Also on the entertainment front, fans mourned the loss of cancelled Netflix hit show "Orange is the New Black," but rejoiced at word that famed author Stephen King will write the sophomore season of "Stranger Things."

September: Hillary's body double and clone cheat at debate

Overheating and exploding Samsung phones (some really did) caused peak concern when a made-up truck filled with a shipment of the phones exploded, killing three people.

A month after his wife's suicide, star Brad Pitt also took his own life. Miley Cyrus and Sylvester Stallone also met untimely ends in September, but the big fake news came with the revelations that Hillary Clinton had died and been replaced with both a body double and a clone.

The presidential campaign was more roiled by other controversies like Clinton receiving debate questions in advance or the 5 million uncounted ballots cast in California that werefound on her private email server. (Real-world note: Actual reporting would later reveal a Democratic CNN commentator did send Clinton questions in advance of at least one town hall during the primary.) In other fake news, President Obama, meanwhile, refused to end his term quietly. He used his bully pulpit to declare that the United States "deserved" the terrorist attacks of 2001 and said he would refuse to leave office if Donald Trump is elected.

(Editors' note: We're three-quarters of the way through our full year of fake news in review. This was the part of the year where the fabrications started to come even more fast and furious in advance of the US election and a bizarre nationwide anxiety over creepy clowns, which were real, but the fake headlines about the campaign and clowns took things to another level. Remember these are the stories you might have heard about that never really happened.)

October: Donald dies, the Clown Wars live

October was a dark month, but not as dark as November, which NASA's fake universe counterpart confirmed would have 15 days of total darkness for some inexplicable celestial reason. The dominant story leading up to Halloween involved a continent-wide panic over creepy and apparently murderous clowns, prompting a ban on clown masks and legislation permitting the public to use lethal force against suspicious clowns.

The presidential campaign took yet another unprecedented fictional turn with the death of Republican nominee Donald Trump, following the death of Hillary Clinton and her replacement on the trail by a clone and body doubles. The demise of both major party candidates did little to stop the flow of bad news, especially for Clinton. It was revealed the Clinton Foundation spent millions on illegal arms, evidence of voter fraud during the primaries surfaced and Clinton received the controversial endorsement of a leader of ISIS.

Donald Trump's death wasn't enough to generate sympathy in the face of his (real-world) comments about sexually assaulting women from a decade earlier that surfaced, even from his widow Melania, who announced she would vote for Clinton instead.

November: Trump wins, appoints El Chapo

The ridiculous revelations kept coming in the days before Election Day. New York police raided Hillary Clinton's property, investigated the Clintons' ties to a child sex ring (note: this fake story inspired this scary real-world incident) and Clinton or her clone said she "accidentally" gave $400 million to ISIS.

On Election Day, the late Donald Trump won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, especially when the millions of votes cast illegally are taken into account. The also late whistle-blowerEdward Snowden claimed Russia had fixed the election in Trump's favor. At a Trump victory rally, supporters chanted "We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back."

President Obama was quick to sign an executive order initiating an investigation into the election results.

(Special real-world election note: Trump really did win the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote by over 2.9 million votes; there have been just a few isolated cases of voter fraud reported, but Trump and the fake news have both spread the false claim of massive fraud. US intelligence agencies believe Russian hackers did breach Democratic servers and leak info to influence the election, but there's been no evidence of the actual vote being hacked. President Obama was among the first to accept the election results and offer support to Trump during the transition to his administration.)

Having apparently faked his own fake-news death, Trump reemerged following his victory to begin fake filling out his cabinet, starting with the appointment of Mexican cartel kingpin "El Chapo" to run the Drug Enforcement Agency and the late Bill Cosby as Secretary for Women's Rights.

December: Vice President Kanye, Mary Jane O.D.

The Trump transition continued with the fake news that Kanye West would now be vice president, presumably to the surprise of VP-elect Mike Pence.

Trump further signaled coming shifts in policy, including bringing back the draft and reiterating his belief that the world is flat. Despairing Democrats pledged to go on strike to force the implementation of Islamic Sharia law and Obama maneuvered, via the United Nations, to force the payment of reparations to African-Americans for slavery.

Election results also included the legalization of marijuana in a handful of states (real-world note: that did happen) leading to the first recorded overdose of the drug within hours. Despite this, Newport introduced its first marijuana cigarettes for worldwide distribution.

Finally, the year came to a close with much discussion of something called "fake news:" The app for media outlet Breitbart was banned from Apple's App Store and President Obama signed an executive order banning all fake news outlets.

(Editors' note: So there they are, 120 stories that made the rounds in 2016 even though they never happened. Most of them are ridiculous, but only a few of the fake stories are technically impossible and this is a crazy world we live in. To protect yourself from getting duped, read carefully, read a wide variety of sources, think before you share and check out our tips here, more from Factcheck.org here and in the video below.)