SAN FRANCISCO -- Did you know a San Francisco elementary school suspended a student for wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas?
That's because it didn't happen.
But an Internet hoax had people across the country believing it did, resulting in e-mail tirades and more than 75 phone complaints and veiled threats of violence against the fictitious teacher or the actual principal. And taxpayers picked up the tab for beefed-up security and staff time to deal with the scam.
Because of the threats, Argonne elementary school administrators called an emergency teacher meeting to review security procedures and district officials assigned an extra security officer to the campus. In addition, police have increased patrols around the school this week, said district Assistant Superintendent Leticia Salinas.
The rumor originated about six days ago on what appears to be a satirical website called the National Report, which features content designed to look like real news stories.
A story on the site said a fourth-grader at "Argon Elementary" in San Francisco was given a week-long suspension for saying "merry Christmas" to his homeroom teacher, an atheist. The site later changed the school name to "Anon."
Neither "Argon" nor "Anon" is a real school in the city.
The story also named the boy, the boy's mother and the teacher -- none of whom exist.
Still, the hoax went viral, with the National Report site garnering about 20,000 likes and shares on Facebook as of Tuesday. Nearly 400 links were made to the original story on Twitter feeds. Dozens of online sites picked up the story, many of them leaning to the political right and each spreading the rumor further afield.
The fake story claimed the incident exemplifies the ongoing "war on Christmas," a debate that some cable networks and conservative talk show hosts say has taken root in such liberal bastions as San Francisco. That's despite the 80-foot Christmas fir in Union Square with its 21,000 twinkling lights and the daily bumper-to-bumper downtown traffic caused by shoppers looking for presents to put under their own bedecked trees at home.
Another story on National Report from "Berkley, Calif.," regarding the expulsion of a "Berkley Elementary" student for saying "merry Christmas" to a Muslim teacher didn't trigger an outcry similar to the one brought about by the San Francisco story.
The nasty calls and e-mails started to hit the real Argonne elementary on Thursday and have continued this week, district officials said.
"You don't expect to have to deal with this at this time of year," Salinas said. "What was mostly upsetting was some of the references of what people should do to the teacher."
The Argonne school secretary spent hours answering the phone, explaining to irate callers that the story wasn't true. Most were surprised and simply hung up.
On Monday, the school started sending all incoming calls to an automated message explaining the hoax.
Among the angry e-mailers was the Rev. Craig Donofrio of the "Messenger of Good News" radio, KFUO.org, in St. Louis.
"Thank you for your monumental blunder, it will provide me weeks of material on my show," he wrote to Argonne's real principal, Cami Okubo. "Keep up the terrible work. It makes my job so much easier! MERRY CHRISTMAS! Craig."
Only later did Donofrio realize he had been duped.
"It is sad that people make up such stories and agitate others into outrage in such a way," he said in an e-mail to The Chronicle on Tuesday, adding that he had apologized to the principal. "I was very happy that I did fact-checking before going on air with this story, and it has not been discussed on-air.
"I learned a valuable lesson through all of this, that being: There are complete and utter creeps out there who make up such things."
Yet for every one of those "creeps" who makes things up, there are dozens, hundreds, if not thousands of people willing -- even wanting -- to believe them, political and communications experts say.
"We tend to apply lower standards of evidence to information that confirms our predispositions," said Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. "What that means in practice is people seize onto these online nuggets that confirm what they believe.
"They're certainly unlikely to seek out information to see if it's true."
Yet research shows that even if confronted with a correction to false information, it won't change people's minds, he said.
"Even in the case where someone accepts that this story is false, it isn't clear that they'll accept an actual 'war on Christmas' is false," Nyhan said. "No one thinks they're misinformed."