Last week after breakfast, I took a quick break before starting morning homeschool with my son. As I skimmed my Twitter feed, a headline caught my eye: “Detroit family caught in Iraq travel ban, says mom died waiting to come home.”
This story hit (geographically) close to home, and my heart sank as I thought of this man’s anguish as he waited helplessly at home in Michigan—powerless to provide his mother, who was stranded in Iraq, with the medical care she so desperately needed.
But by the time I checked my updates later that afternoon, the headline had changed: As the local Fox affiliate reported, “After the story aired on FOX 2 and was posted on FOX2Detroit.com, we received many questions about the validity of Hager’s claims. FOX 2 has confirmed that his mother died five days earlier – on January 22, 2017.”
What About Blaming Those Who ‘Cry Wolf’?
Upon this delivery of the latest edition of Fake News, the stock response by many—myself included—is to chastise the media. But upon reading the above correction, my mind instead flashed to our prior day’s school lesson.
My son had just finished reading the chapter in “Little House in the Big Woods” in which Laura told how her young cousin “cried wolf” while Pa and Uncle Henry worked in the fields, leaving his later cries for help—when he mistakenly stomped on a wasps’ nest—unanswered.
With that lesson fresh in my mind, instead of directing my anger at the publisher of the Fake News, my wrath fell squarely on the Fake Victim. Yes, the media holds great responsibility in reporting and bears great blame when it spreads falsehoods. But the suppliers of those stories bear as much—if not more—culpability. After all, for whatever reason, the Fake Victim is intentionally lying: to further a cause, to garner 15 minutes of fame, or maybe (and less culpably so) due to a mental illness.
Fake Victims Only Damage Their Cause When They Tell Lies
In the Tale of the Dying Mother, the motive seems clear. The Fake Victim intended to further a cause: to spur outrage over President Trump’s Executive Order, which placed a pause on travel from seven countries previously identified by the Obama administration as warranting concern. But rather than debate the merits of the Executive Order, the Fake Victim sought to manipulate our emotions. And unlike juvenile crying-wolf pranks, publicly parading false tragedies diminishes much more than the prevaricator’s reputation.
Those supporting the underlying “cause” see the greatest harm falling on their community. Such was the case when news broke that Yasmin Seweid had fabricated her account that three men yelling “Donald Trump” had taunted her on a subway train, calling her a terrorist. Imam Shamsi Ali, of the Jamaican Muslim Center in Queens, told NBC News, “I am truly worried that the real concerns of our community will be undermined and in time real attacks perpetrated against Muslims will be just considered such as this lie.”
This fear—while accurate—portrays the “cause” as the primary casualty. For instance, in response to Seweid’s fraud, Imam Ali added: “Not only is it dishonest, using and abusing people’s empathy, goodwill, time and emotion, it comes at a tremendous cost, which is always borne by the most marginalized of society, who are trying to gain an equal footing, live their life with dignity, safety and security.”
Fake News Hurts Everyone
But this view is too parochial. The harm flowing from the Fake Victims rests not just on the most marginalized, but on society as a whole. We want—we need—to connect with our fellow human beings. Empathizing with the pain others suffer provides us with a perspective into their viewpoints that a dry debate on public policy cannot: It allows us to bond with political opponents and glimpse a view of their hearts and hurts.
Thus, even the most partisan rallied around Vice-President Biden when he suffered yet another devastating personal loss—of his son Beau from cancer. Americans of all political stripes showered him with prayers and sympathy. But should the rising trend in Fake Victims continue unabated, our hearts will harden, leaving us unable to connect in even the most fundamentally human way with our political opponents.
What Happens When People Cry Wolf
For example, consider the non-political case of Noah Chamberlin. When news broke last year from Tennessee that the little two-year-old had disappeared when his grandmother momentarily turned around, the country came together to pray for him and his family. But after a thorough search uncovered no sign of Noah, the internet quickly turned to supposition.
My heart ached thinking of their anguish, but as the days went by without an answer, my suspicions also grew: In the 20-plus years since Susan Smith drowned her young children while faking a carjacking and a kidnapping, too many such cases had made the news. Try as I might—and with prayers still continuing—I could not banish from my mind the possibility that the family’s heartbreaking story was just the latest cover-up. In the end, Noah’s disappearance proved to be a tragic accident, as one week later authorities recovered the little boy’s body outside of the search perimeter.
If our emotions can become so jaded that even the most heartrending stories—such as that of a missing two-year-old—no longer stir our passions, how much more cynical will we be when confronted by claims of suffering presented by a political opponent? With Americans more polarized now than at any other time in history, we must stop destroying our only remaining connection—our shared humanity.
We Are At Risk of Becoming Too Jaded to Care
The media—like an uncontrollable junkie—has proven itself desperate for the next tragedy du jour. Even the $1 million judgment against Rolling Stone hasn’t tempered the media’s addiction, its craving for “hits” over honest reporting. It’s time to admit the intervention has failed, and rehab now seems unlikely.
It’s time to go to the source: the Fake Victims. So this message is for you: You are not just hurting yourself and your cause. You are destroying the human bond that transcends our backgrounds and political parties.
Stop. Just stop.