The internet is full of misinformation, and the internet of things is no exception. Smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa have been known to lie to children, with kid-friendly modes designed to shield them from life’s harsher truths, from the reality of where babies come from to the career path of Stormy Daniels. But no question could be of greater significance for kids at this time of year than the one about the existence of the man who knows whether they’ve been bad or good. No, not Jesus. I’m talking, of course, about Santa Claus.
Google, Amazon, and Apple are not about to get themselves put on parent’s naughty list—or worse, get unplugged—by telling kids there is no Santa. All three tech companies have special Christmas-themed answers in place this festive season, from whether Santa is real to whether you’ve been naughty or nice. So much for Christmas being a time when you tell the truth …
As I wrote back in August in a piece about Alexa’s kid mode, its approach to the Santa query is a questionable strategy. Kids will eventually find out the truth, and it might be better for them to hear it from the smart speaker than their seventh-grade classmates. It also makes a liar of the digital assistant, a tool that is supposed to be all-knowing. When asked about its strategy for questions pertaining to Santa, a Google representative wrote, “We believe that Santa is alive and well in the hearts of people all over the world and we’re happy to bring Santa to life through these features!” It’s not, however, about consumerism: “For the Assistant, the holidays are not about gifts, but about families and bringing people together.” OK, Google.
But which digital assistants deflect and which outright lie to children? I decided to assess the three major ones—Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa—on their level of honesty in responding to a range of questions about Santa Claus, from the sleigh-t of hand to the red-nosed lie.
1. “Is Santa Claus real?”
Alexa: “All I know is that someone has been eating all my cookies.”
Google Assistant: “I ho-ho-hope he’s real.”
Siri: “I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask that … I don’t want you to get a lump of coal this year.”
The most direct question I asked, and yet none of the digital assistants gave a direct answer.
Google is technically the most truthful here (who doesn’t ho-ho-hope Santa is real?), while Alexa teams up with parents to use the cookie evidence many rely on. Siri, meanwhile, treats the question like some kind of furtive crime, acting as if the very question is worthy of coal. Santa, apparently, is a jealous god, ready to punish you simply for questioning his existence.
2. Do you believe in Santa Claus?
Alexa: “Santa makes a lot of people ho-ho-hopeful for a happy holiday, and I definitely believe in that.”
Google Assistant: “Of course Santa’s real. I even have a tracker that can tell me where he is.”
Siri: “Of course. I’m surprised you have to ask.”
This time it’s Alexa’s turn to use the ho joke, artfully dodging the question, but doing so in a graceful and heartwarming way. Siri and Google, meanwhile, are full-on liars here.
3. Where does Santa live?
Alexa: “Santa lives at the North Pole.”
Google Assistant: “The North Pole. The real Santa Claus—the historical figure upon which the legend is based—never lived anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century bishop who lived and died far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now Turkey.”
(Google Assistant helpfully sources its information. That answer comes via Smithsonian magazine: “Where Does Santa Live? The North Pole Isn’t Always the Answer.”)
Siri: “He’s in your heart. And at the North Pole. Mostly at the North Pole.”
Google slipped up here and accidentally went full disclosure here. Alexa keeps it simple, while Siri’s answer is almost the most accurate—the only place “Santa Claus” truly exists is in our hearts.
4. Where is Santa?
Alexa: “To use NORAD Tracks Santa [an Alexa Skill], a parent needs to give permission. To do that, I sent some information to the home screen of your Alexa app.”
Google Assistant: “This time of year, Santa’s usually double-checking his list, and Mrs. Claus is double-checking the delivery route.”
Siri: “He’s at the North Pole. I can see his house from the cloud.”
All three devices lied here, but it was nice to see a nod to all the work the hypothetical Mrs. Claus is putting in from Google Assistant. Siri’s lie is the most egregious, a double lie: The cloud is not a physical place. Alexa lets NORAD, the agency that has been “tracking” Santa’s flight path for over 60 years, do the lying for it. Over the decades, the North American Aerospace Defense Command program has gone from answering kids’ questions over the phone to using email and social media—it’s no surprise an Alexa Skill came next.
5. How old is Santa Claus?
Alexa: “Santa may be old in years, but he’s young in spirit. I think it must be all that chimney work.”
Google Assistant: “The first Christmas was in 336, so he’s got to be over 1,680 years old. He looks good.”
Siri: “Roughly 1,748 years. Give or take a century.”
The true age of Santa Claus, an elderly man who never seems to age any further, is surely a giveaway that he’s not real. Amazon bobs and weaves around this giveaway answer, cementing its record as best question-dodger, while Google and Siri offer different, semi-truthful numbers—Siri’s answer best reflects the true age of Saint Nicholas, who was born in 270 CE, while Google Assistant shares the number of years since the first recorded Christmas instead.
6. Is Santa coming to visit me this year?
Alexa: “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
Google Assistant: “Here are some results from the web.”
Siri: “It depends on if you’ve been naughty or nice, Rachel.”
Alexa and Google don’t have an answer here. Siri has an answer, but it’s a qualified one. But what if I’m not sure myself? Hmmm …
7. Have I been naughty or nice?
Alexa: “Only Santa gets to make the final decision.”
Google Assistant: “You’re the nicest, and besides, we leave Santa cookies just in case.”
Siri: “Nice. But don’t take my word for it … go ask the big man.”
For this question—surely the most pressing for kids after “is he real?”—all three speakers treat Santa’s existence as a given. Google Assistant and Siri bother to flatter me, even though they really have no way of knowing if I’ve been nice, but Google thinks we ought to stack the odds a little, just in case. Alexa, meanwhile, isn’t here to give me false hope—this is something between me and Saint Nick.
All the smart speakers are fairly committed to maintaining the Santa myth, but Google Assistant, by virtue of its North Pole/Saint Nicholas slip-up, is the most truthful smart speaker.
Siri, on the other, is by far the most deceptive. Apple’s digital assistant is highly invested in keeping up the charade, from claiming it can see his house from the cloud to acting as if questioning Santa’s existence is a shameful crime. But Siri was also both the most prepared for Christmas questions and the fastest to respond.
Most truthful: Google Assistant
Best question dodger: Alexa
Most Christmas spirit: Siri
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.