Trash TV legend Morton Downey, Jr. made a highly questionable claim in 1989 that he was attacked by neo-Nazis in a San Francisco International Airport restroom. He said they shaved his head and painted a backwards swastika on his face. Every year it seems as if these hate crime hoaxes increase. But lies about hate crimes are just one kind of whopper. As we close out 2013, awash in daily social media outrage and as gullible as ever, here are six hoaxes that suckered far too many journalists and others.
The lying lesbian waitress
In mid-November, waitress Dayna Morales sent a picture to Have A Gay Day purporting to show that customers left her a mean note in place of a tip. The receipt allegedly said: “I’m sorry but I cannot tip because I don’t agree with your lifestyle and how you live your life.” Outraged Americans expressed their shock and horror at the mean note, sharing the picture and associated stories tens of thousands of times. Everyone patted themselves on the back for agreeing that this was hateful homophobic behavior. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in for the former Marine. The only problem is that the story had no basis in fact. The family whose receipt was shown proved that they had actually tipped 20% on their bill. Friends told media outlets that this was just the latest in a string of extraordinary stories told by Morales, who was dishonorably discharged from the military for failing to turn up to drills. She had told friends, reportedly, that she was the only survivor of a bomb blast in Afghanistan. She also reportedly made fantastic claims about incurable brain cancer, sustaining major damage in Hurricane Sandy and being impregnated by her father. At one point Morales claimed she would donate the gifts she received to the Wounded Warrior Project, but the group couldn’t verify if she made any donation.
The dramatic love life of Manti Te’o
Manti Teʻo, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, played in college for the University of Notre Dame. One of the more interesting stories of the 2012 college football season was Te’o’s excellent leadership on the field after enduring the deaths of his beloved grandmother and beautiful girlfriend. His name was mentioned frequently as a Heisman contender and the deaths were mentioned in all the major media write-ups of his amazing season. In January of this year, Deadspin revealed that the very existence of the girlfriend was a hoax — an online relationship with a man posing as a woman.
Elan Gale’s fake fight on an airplane
On Thanksgiving Day, reality television producer Elan Gale tweeted out an imaginative tale of a very rude woman on a packed airplane. Twitter lost its collective mind over how awful this woman — who was berating a flight attendant, according to the tweets — was. She didn’t exist and Gale later revealed that he’d invented the woman as a way to entertain himself and his followers while on a flight. It being Thanksgiving, journalists went ahead and reported the event as fact without verifying it.
The not-so-poor poor person and her “poverty thoughts”
In October, Linda Tirado wrote “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” which looked at her struggles with near abject poverty. It was republished by Jezebel and then the Huffington Post in November where, due to the magic of social media, it received millions of page views. You know what’s coming: It turned out the story was a very dramatic exaggeration, at best. The author is married, owns a home, and received scholarships to the same fancy school in Michigan that Mitt Romney attended (though she actually attended a private religious school because her family couldn’t afford the full Cranbrook tuition). It’s not that she didn’t have some hardships but she now says — after raising more than $60,000 — that she was trying to give people a feel for what poverty is like. Angela Leicht at the Houston Press revealed some of the contradictory data on Tirado, which is a tangled mess, but she still has her defenders.
The clothing store that rejected the overweight shopper
Shelby Buster was shopping with a friend for her 14th birthday. She came home and told her mother she’d been browsing at teen clothing store Rue 21 when an employee told her that she was “too big to be in this store” and needed to leave. Outraged people across the world left nasty comments on the Rue 21 Facebook page, getting even more upset when Rue 21 said it was investigating the claim. Apparently the only appropriate response to an internet mob is to join it, rather than practice due diligence. The claim made national and international news. By the time Buster retracted her story, the media interest had evaporated. An actual employee had been wrongly blamed and the family expressed their regret at going public with the claim.
At a speech in Largo, Md., on September 26, President Obama said, “Now, let’s start with the fact that even before the Affordable Care Act fully takes effect, about 85 percent of Americans already have health insurance -– either through their job, or through Medicare, or through the individual market. So if you’re one of these folks, it’s reasonable that you might worry whether health care reform is going to create changes that are a problem for you — especially when you’re bombarded with all sorts of fear-mongering. So the first thing you need to know is this: If you already have health care, you don’t have to do anything.”
It was one of three dozen times he’d uttered some variation of the claim that if you liked your health care plan, you could keep it. As critics of Obamacare had noted for a long time, this was an untrue statement. Millions of Americans lost their freely chosen health care plans and then found themselves unable to purchase health care due to major implementation problems with Obamacare. Politifact even named this the lie of the year, a curious move for an outfit that rated the same statement true in 2008. All of a sudden Manti Te’o doesn’t seem so gullible.