How To Spot A Media Hoax

How To Spot A Media Hoax

The more an accusation of wrongdoing or criminal activity sounds like a picture-perfect capitalized example of Hate Crime or Wicked Evil Behavior, the more you should mistrust the claims.
Daniel Payne
By

These days it’s no easy life for perpetrators of fake hate crimes and hoaxes generally: every time somebody comes up with a really good fake scandal, the whole thing seems to unravel within a short while. Time was, a man could go through all the trouble to arrange a hoax and could expect to reap the rewards of his hard work. Not anymore.

What’s changed? Part of it is technological: there are more security cameras, more digital paper trails, more text message records. These present opportunities for hoaxes to be exposed: there are simply more chances for people to give something away, either idiosyncratically (by, say, sending an incriminating e-mail or text message) or extraneously (by being caught on a closed-circuit camera, for instance).

Perhaps more importantly, with the multiple sensational hoaxes taking place over the past decade or so (Breitbart has catalogued more than 100 of them), much of the public—at least among those of us who work in media—has become vigilant in spotting such chicanery and exposing it. Just the same, plenty of hoaxes still get widespread attention before they’re exposed; sometimes they cause lots of damage before they’re revealed as fake.

The good news is you can train yourself to be a hoax-spotter as well. You never know: you might be instrumental in exposing the next big fake hate crime or hoax. Here are three things to look for in determining whether an accusation is probably real or possibly fake.

1. The Allegations Are Too Good to Be True

What do I mean by this? Simply that you should be skeptical of claims that overly gratify certain biases or cultural narratives. The more an accusation of wrongdoing or criminal activity sounds like a picture-perfect capitalized example of Hate Crime or Wicked Evil Behavior, the more you should mistrust the claims.

Take, for example, the now-debunked Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” which detailed an alleged hours-long gang rape of one young woman by a bunch of fraternity boys. The whole story turned out to be a fabrication and a global humiliation for Rolling Stone. But in the beginning, everyone believed it. Why?

As Richard Bradley pointed out (Bradley was one of the first to publicly question the story), the tale gratified many people’s pre-existing biases: biases regarding “rape culture,” fraternities, men (especially Southern men), and feckless, hostile college bureaucracies. You could have hardly asked for a story that played into more prejudices. Coincidentally, the story turned out to be an enormous lie.

Those of us who raised suspicions were lambasted as “truthers” and rebuked as rape apologists and misogynists. Everybody could have saved themselves a lot of humiliation and anger during those crazy weeks if they had simply exercised a bit of healthy skepticism.

More recently, in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre, a fair number of people claimed to have either had sex with the shooter or else interacted with him on gay hookup apps. There’s that too-good-to-be-true narrative again: an openly anti-gay Islamic man is secretly an active homosexual. It gratifies many peoples’ prejudices: against religion, against anti-gay sentiment, against the way some cultures repress and lambast homosexuality and homosexual desires.

The problem: the allegations are totally unsubstantiated. The FBI has turned up zero evidence. Nobody can find any record of the shooter on any gay dating apps. Somebody produced what appeared to be a profile on one of the apps, but it turned out to be fake. The administrator of one of the apps openly stated he believed it was a hoax. One witness, when pressed to provide more evidence, “became combative,” according to the New York Times: “I don’t need to prove anything to anyone,” he said. “If I said it, it’s true.” Does that sound like a credible witness?

Be skeptical. It doesn’t mean you have to callously or conclusively doubt the people who are making these claims—you should not assume a priori that every victim or witness is a liar. You should, however, be appropriately incredulous when it comes to these things. Fantastical claims should trigger a red flag immediately.

2. The Evidence Doesn’t Add Up

You’re (probably) not a detective or even a journalist, and thus it’s not your job to gather forensic evidence at a crime scene or interview witnesses of murders or assaults. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still make a reasonable judgment regarding available evidence.

Take, for example, the University of Virginia rape hoax mentioned above. The victim claimed to have been raped for three hours on top of broken glass on a fraternity bedroom floor. But she also claimed she refused to go to the hospital for medical treatment. If you’ve been to any frat house across the country, you’ll know they usually aren’t the cleanest or most sanitary places on the planet (I’ve been to several at UVA, and most were uniformly gross). If the rape victim had declined to seek medical treatment after such an episode, the cuts on her back could easily have become infected and she probably would have fallen gravely ill and required hospitalization. That was just one small example of how her story did not add up.

More recently, gay YouTube personality Calum McSwiggan claimed that three homophobic men assaulted him outside of a gay bar in Los Angeles. By his own admission the men punched him hard enough on his mouth to break three of his teeth. The problem? Police later arrested McSwiggan for vandalizing a car, and his mug shot shows absolutely no visible damage to his mouth. Punching someone in the mouth hard enough to snap three teeth in half would leave a lot of bruising and swelling, if not graphically split lips.

More damningly, the Advocate interviewed McSwiggan a few days later, and McSwiggan showed off the bruises, cuts, and other injuries he claims he sustained from the incident—except for his allegedly broken teeth. It’s possible McSwiggan is telling the truth about the assault. But the available evidence strongly implies otherwise. It’s more likely the assault was mostly or entirely fabricated and will be revealed as such in the coming weeks.

So it is with many hoaxes: a quick review of the evidence will often turn up inconsistencies and incoherencies that suggest something isn’t right. Sometimes there are good explanations for these things. Sometimes the explanation is that it’s a hoax.

3. There Is A Big, Public Payoff for the Victim

Our culture has come to prize victimhood: it is often a lucrative trade. Students who claim to feel “unsafe” on college campuses are pampered and feted; liberal college mobs in recent years have even toppled university administrations and forced high-level officials to resign. Being a victim carries a great deal of prestige among large parts of twenty-first-century America.

It is unsurprising many people perpetrate hate hoaxes: they do it for the low kind of fame and fortune that often comes with being a victim.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising many people perpetrate hate hoaxes: they do it for the low kind of fame and fortune that often comes with being a victim. A few years ago a gay waitress fabricated an anti-gay incident for that very reason. A gay pastor in Austin, Texas did the same thing. A black activist at Kean University tweeted fake racist threats at her fellow black students to gin up controversy and build support for her activism.

Sometimes the payoff is less obvious but still very real: earlier this year three black women claimed they were assaulted on a public bus by white men who also hurled racial slurs at them. It turned out to be false: the young women had started a fight on the bus and wanted to deflect attention away from their own bad behavior. In the meantime the women received tons of support and the campus turned into a hotbed of racial activism. Payoff!

Whenever you read of a terrible or sensational claim of violence or bigotry, it is always worthwhile to ask: what is the potential payoff for the people making these claims? This doesn’t mean you should assume every victim of every crime is trying to scam you. But for the kinds of headline-grabbing events that often drive our news cycles, this kind of curious skepticism is always advisable.

Whenever you read of a terrible or sensational claim of violence or bigotry, it is always worthwhile to ask: what is the potential payoff for the people making these claims?

If you follow these three rules, there is a better-than-average chance you’ll spot hoaxes instead of being sucked in by them. You may even do better than our credulous media and pundit class, both of which are often very eager to report on these hoaxes without doing even basic investigatory work. You will save yourself a lot of embarrassment on social media if you’re not taken in, and you won’t contribute to any mass hysteria or public pitchfork mobs in the meantime.

There is, of course, a danger in being too skeptical: in doubting 100 percent any kind of wild or fantastical claim a victim or witness makes. You shouldn’t close your mind to the possibility that these claims are true. All of the hoaxes listed here were 100 percent possible. The problem was, they weren’t very plausible—and in the end they ended up being total fakes, promoted and spread by people who were too eager to question much.

Do not be scared to be skeptical. It may make you unpopular with a certain class of people who eagerly want to believe everything that gratifies their biases. You might get yelled at or scolded if you are too prudent or cautious in getting on board with a public outrage. But you’ll be doing the right thing: making an informed judgment based on the facts instead of blind, biased rage. That’s always worthwhile.

Daniel Payne is a senior contributor at the Federalist. He is an assistant editor for The College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. Daniel's work has appeared in outlets such as National Review Online, Reason, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. His personal blog can be found at Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia.

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