The Hoax Effect

Before cellphone and body cameras were ubiquitous, our arguments at arraignment and trial about the beating cops gave a defendant fell on deaf ears. The counter-argument was easy: why would this heroic, dedicated officer of the law, who doesn’t know the defendant from Adam and certainly has no personal animosity against him, possibly want to gratuitously harm him? Of course, we now know, because there are tons of videos on Youtube, that it happens all the time. Why? Who knows? Who cares? It happens. There may be no good reason, but it happens.

It’s the same argument for why no woman would allege rape if it didn’t happen. Or no black person would falsely claim to be the victim of a racist attack. Why would anyone do something like that?

After an unidentified troll wrote the threatening words “Go home n—-r” on dormitory message boards at the Air Force Academy prep school in September, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academy’s superintendent, delivered a blistering speech on tolerance. With 4,000 students standing at attention, he said, “If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out.”

The speech went viral, garnering more than 2 million views on YouTube.

It was a great speech. It was exactly the speech General Silveria should have given, and he delivered it brilliantly. It’s no less brilliant for the fact that it happened due to a hoax.

Now the academy says one of the five African-American cadet candidates thought to be a victim was actually the perpetrator. The student is no longer enrolled, school officials said Tuesday.

The prep school, which offers a year of training for academy prospects who need academic help, wouldn’t offer details on the circumstances surrounding the hoax. But The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, citing anonymous sources, reported that the unidentified student wrote the messages “in a bizarre bid to get out of trouble he faced at the school for other misconduct.”

Would anyone have known the motive behind the hoax? Even to question the claim would have brought universal condemnation for not believing the victim. But then, only the person who did the dirty knew the reasons behind it. And this time, there were reasons. Sometimes, there are no reasons at all.

Earlier this week, the police released a statement saying that they would not file charges against 21-year-old Dauntarius Williams—who admitted that he was responsible for his car’s vandalism—for filing a false report. Riley County Police said that it would “not be in the best interests” of the community, adding that Williams was “genuinely remorseful and expressed sincere regret.”

Williams, for his part, referred to the incident as a “Halloween prank that got out of hand.” His car, which was parked in an apartment complex near Kansas State’s campus in Manhattan, Kan., was covered in yellow washable paint with slurs like “Go Home Nigger Boy,” “Fuck You Die Dumb Nigger” and “Date Your Own Kind.”

A “prank that got out of hand” seems more like releasing chickens in a high school. Did he miss the part where America went ape shit over such racism? Yet, it happened.

There is the obvious problem with hoaxes, that they serve to undermine real outrages by bolstering suspicion of false claims and feeding those who would attack allegations using Shaun King-level reasoning. But as is happening in the Kansas State incident, the Black Student Union is demanding prosecution of the “prankster” for a different reason.

However, leaders of the Black Student Union at the university were not impressed with the leniency shown by officers in this case.

“The K-State Black Student Union is disheartened that no charges were filed by the Riley County Police Department,” the organization said in a press release. “The fact that an African-American man committed this act should not undermine its effect on K-State students. The conduct of Williams does not negate the current racist and discriminatory actions that continue on campus, community, the state and nation.”

This is a twist on the “words are violence*” approach to racist speech. Regardless of whether it’s a prank, or whether it was intended to frighten anyone or even whether it was perpetrated by a black person, the BSU argues that the words happened and whoever caused the words to happen should be punished for the words. Williams is black? So what? He did it.

No matter who wrote the despicable and hateful speech, we, the K-State Black Student Union, will never stand for hate or threatening speech. We urge the Riley County Police Department to strongly reconsider pressing charges.

The strong position taken here isn’t about Williams’ falsely reporting an incident, or committing a hate crime per se, but the utterance of “hate speech” disconnected from any crime or intent to harm. This is pure speech. Racist and horrible, but speech.

It’s certainly fair to question why anyone would do such a thing. And it’s similarly fair to be outraged that it happened, as it surely impacts views and feeds those who would deny such things happen. And yet, stuff like this happens.

For the Air Force cadet, there was some background problem. For Williams, who knows. That these are outliers and have absolutely no bearing on whether any incident is real or a hoax is often lost in prejudice. At the same time, these incidents are a critical reminder that bad and stupid things happen for reasons, or no reasons, we know nothing about.

It doesn’t matter what “most people” do, or what you believe they do since we never quite know as much as we believe we know about what’s in the heads of other people. Each incident is like the flip of a coin, independent of any other. Rather than hoaxes having the effect of making us doubt the veracity of a claim, they should remind us that the presumption of regularity prevails, but that it is never the same as proof.

Stercus accidit, even if you have no clue why. We should never assume the hoofbeats are made by zebras rather than horses, but we can never exclude that possibility until we know for sure.

*They’re not. No. They’re not.

7 thoughts on “The Hoax Effect

  1. B. McLeod

    Faux racist messages and anti-Islamic messages similarly staged to spawn media “outrages” have become a fairly regular occurrence. There have been enough of them already that every reported incident seems just as likely to be a hoax as actual hostile expression. I think the black student union raises a good point as well. If the prevailing “progressive” assumption is that “hate speech” is bad and can be punished, why should it matter that the person who deprived black students of their “safe space” was also black? Is it “progressively” OK to terrorize blacks if you’re black? To terrorize Muslims if you’re Muslim? Such a conclusion makes no sense, as the impact on the “victims” of the expression is the same as if the hoax were real.

    1. SHG Post author

      To their credit, it’s an intellectually honest position. But we still need a “presumption of regularity” approach to these incidents, without the constraints of “believe the survivor” regardless of truth or falsity.

      1. B. McLeod

        To be sure, they aren’t all of a single stripe. Some are so ludicrous they are facially suspect. For example, the photocopied “Americans for a Better Way” letters to mosques, which were all mailed from the same California post office at a time when the more delusional “resistance” types still thought they were going to get the Electoral College to throw the election to Clinton. The “disturbing black tape” incident at Harvard Law School also struck me as a prime candidate for the “hoax” basket. Other incidents have been plausible to the extent that they looked real until police investigations unmasked them. Resources like increasingly omnipresent cameras and cellphone location techniques are going to make it steadily more difficult for unsophisticated hoaxers to put their phony incidents over.

  2. grberry

    I understand the idea of a presumption of regularity. I’m just having a hard time thinking of a recent high profile example of something that I’d agree was hate speech and was not perpetrated by the purported victim or another a member of the targeted minority. Best I’ve come up with was the idiotic black leftist democrat reporter who in the middle of the bomb threats from a Jew in Israel to synagogues in the U.S. also tried to frame his ex by making a few such threats himself. There at least the culprit was a different minority. Right now, my presumption of regularity would be that if it is high profile, the most likely suspect is the purported victim or someone of the same group.

    I also note that you have a footnote without a marker in the main body of the text marking what the footnote applies to.

    1. SHG Post author

      You blew it with “that I’d agree was hate speech,” because you’re special, snowflake. And note the asterisk after the word “violence.” Two strikes.

      1. grberry

        Mea culpa. Sigh, telling me the marker was after violence let me find it. I’d looked thrice, and even tried the browser’s find function for an asterisk and only gotten the one at the start of the footnote. Browser find on violence let me find it.

        The “that I’d agree was hate speech” was trying to avoid edge cases and special snowflake definitions. The example I had in mind was the incident where an international plane passenger’s tweet (that I thought dumb but not hateful) cost the passenger their reputation and job by the time the plane landed. Other similar examples are covered in the 2015 NYT article “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up [NAME’s] Life”.

        1. SHG Post author

          Meh. Turning this into a pissing contest of what constitutes sufficiently racist speech or conduct is unhelpful. You don’t know of any? Thanks for sharing.

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