It wasn’t the most widely shared Pagan article I’ve ever seen but Stephen Posch’s Postmaster Announces New Pagan Holiday Stamps certainly generated some page-views. It’s the kind of thing many of us want to believe, and in today’s social media environment many of us only see the “news” that we want to see.
Peg Aloi over at The Witching Hour wrote something the other day asking why so many people were fooled by Posch’s article, and she makes some good points. I also think she misses a few things, which is why I’m throwing in my two cents here. I nearly wrote a response on her blog outlining some of it, but it became a bit too long so I ended up putting it here.
If you missed Stephen’s article, the first four paragraphs of it pretty much sum everything up (complete with fake AP Wire tag):
AP: Washington, DC
The Postmaster General announced today the upcoming release of a series of stamps commemorating the eight holidays celebrated by the vast majority of contemporary pagans.
“Pagans have been an integral part of this nation since its founding and before,” said Postmaster Tamar Penrose, acting head of the US Postal Service. “It’s time and high time for such a public acknowledgement.”
The stamps will be released later this year on November 1, the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, celebrated by many contemporary pagans as their New Year.
The release coincides with the opening of the Smithsonian’s new exhibit, “Pagan America: The First 400 Years.” The exhibit will include the unveiling of the original prototypes for the stamps.
Five years ago it was mostly my conservative friends sharing “fake news” from satirical websites, now my liberal friends do it too. It’s pretty easy to imagine Donald Trump or even Hillary Clinton making a ridiculous comment in public, so much so that it’s easy to be taken. It happened to me once with a Sarah Palin quote that wasn’t a Sarah Palin quote.
Since my Palin faux-pas I now tend to google any “news story” that sounds too god (or awful) to be true. If it doesn’t turn up anywhere else, it’s probably not true. Despite what some people think, even mainstream sites have a vested interest in presenting you with accurate information. They aren’t sitting on any major scandals because to do so would be lose out on page-views, which means losing out on money.
Social media has changed the way we see and process information. If I see ten of my friends sharing a story I’m more inclined to believe that it’s true, especially if those people do the sharing are individuals I like and respect. In the case of Posch’s article, his story was picked up by super-Pagan Facebook pages like Witches and Pagans (which he writes for, as do I sometimes) and Covenant of the Goddess. Those are pages with over 250,000 page likes, which in Pagandom is an absolutely huge number. Things travel quickly when they are shared there and on The Witch’s Voice Facebook page. (By comparison, our page here at Patheos Pagan has only 28,000 likes.) From experience I can tell you whether or not one of my articles here will be widely read or not by how many large Facebook pages share my writing.
And it’s not really that out of bounds to think that the US Postal Service might issue a stamp for a Pagan holiday. A spokesperson for the Post Office has said previously “The Postal Service has a long standing history of celebrating the religions of the world on postage stamps.” Which is a true statement. This year the post office unveiled a stamp celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, and previous stamps have honored Hopi holidays. A Pagan stamp is not completely out of the realm of possibility, plus you can make your own on Zazzle.
Posch’s article also represented something of a generation gap (or perhaps knowledge gap) in Contemporary Paganism. For many people the inclusion of of a Postmaster named Tamar Penrose was a dead giveaway as to the article’s tongue and cheek in nature. But I’m going to say a large majority of the Pagan Community has never heard of Tamar Penrose. Penrose was a character in the book Harvest Home and the TV miniseries The Dark Secret of Harvest Home that was based on it. Both book and movie are products of the 1970’s (1970 and 1978 respectively) but they are things I’m only nominally familiar with. And really only because I go to Peg Aloi’s history of Witchcraft in the movies workshops at festivals.
Neither the movie nor the book shows up in Chas Clifton’s book on Pagan American history (Her Hidden Children, read it!) and I’ve never come across either one on a “read” or “watch” list of Pagan materials. I tend to think of myself as having a pretty good grasp on our history (your opinion of me might differ!) but Posch’s joke was far too subtle for me (at least when it came to Penrose). There might be a generation of Pagans who really love Harvest Home, but it hasn’t been transmitted to the rest of us in the same way The Wicker Man was. (And there’s only one version of The Wicker Man, don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.)
Forty years ago it’s likely that more people would have been in on the joke, and Posch’s article would have probably only appeared in a Pagan magazine like The Green Egg or Circle Network News. Even if people would have been fooled back then, it’s not like they could really share the article. Today we are overloaded by media and it’s doubtful that everything we read and share on Facebook and Twitter is deeply thought about before we send it out into the universe of the internet.
Most of us have probably been taken at some point or another, and it’s likely to continue. We can be more vigilant and google everything after reading it, but who has time to do that all the time? (Did you hear that Jason Mankey is going to star with Heather Graham on History Channel’s Witch Detective? A few hundred people fell for that this past April Fool’s Day.) Today’s internet is full of click-bait giving us what someone else thinks we want to read, and our world can just be so incredibly dumb, confusing, and wondrous that it often feels like nearly anything is possible. Read with care.