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Can You Get Away With Committing a Hate Crime Hoax?

Conservative columnist John Leo notes that "fake hate crimes, like the one just perpetrated by Princeton student Francisco Nava, are quite common on college campuses." He urges both liberals and conservatives to be more skeptical about reported on-campus hate crimes targeting their respective sides.

If fake hate crimes really are becoming common, the interesting question is why. After all, if the perpetrator gets caught, his reputation is likely to take a major hit and the cause he espouses will suffer a setback in the court of public opinion. For example, Francisco Nava is now a pariah to the Left; conservatives are likely to be wary of him as well, for fear of being tainted by association with him. And Nava's actions have surely damaged the cause of conservatism at Princeton far more than they helped it.

Why then, do, the Navas of the world perpetrate fake hate crimes that are likely to harm both themselves and their cause? One possibility is that most such people are irrational or stupid and don't realize that their hoaxes are likely to be exposed. That may well be what happened in Nava's case.

The other possible explanation is far more troubling: perhaps it's easier to get away with a hate crime hoax than we think. For every Nava who gets caught, maybe there are several other hate crime scam artists who get away with it. Although it's difficult to effectively fake an assault (as Nava tried to do), it's probably easier to fake threats, racist graffiti, nooses, and the like. If the perpetrator is smart, it may be hard to prove that he planted these kinds of items himself. If hate crime hoaxes actually have a good chance of succeeding, then it is not irrational or stupid for the perpetrators to commit them. Ex ante, the risk of getting caught may be outweighed by the expected benefits to the perp and his cause if he succeeds.

By definition, it's tough to detect a successful hoax; after all, if it's been detected, that means it's no longer a success. Nonetheless, it is at least possible that the rash of failed hate crime hoaxes is an indication that others may have succeeded.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Can You Get Away With Committing a Hate Crime Hoax?
  2. Staged College Hate Crimes:
Freddy Hill:
We seem to live in a world where victimhood is good, and the bigger a victim you are the more important you become. While in times past the holder of the noose had the power today it is the would-be hanging victim that feels (morally) superior.
12.19.2007 11:03pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Isn't it simple? The people who do this prize the personal attention, notoriety, and sympathy, more than they worry about any damage to a cause. And are not too bright (how much brains would it take to fake an untraceable 'hate crime'? Don't leave fingerprints or DNA, and don't be seen, and get your story straight and simple. You woke up and found something, not two people beat you up).
12.19.2007 11:05pm
Randy R. (mail):
I agree. I once knew a guy in college who was actually rather popular. Then he announced that both his parents were killed a car accident. Of course, everyone expressed sympathy, but after a few months, we learned that they were still alive and in no accident.

Why did he do it? It's easy to get people to listen to you if you have a sad or terrible story to tell. With hoaxes, you can get that, with the added benefit that you can instantly become a spokesman for your cause, AND you get plenty of media attention.

For some lonely or ignored persons, that's plenty incentive.
12.19.2007 11:08pm
Me here (mail):
Has anyone determined yet whether the recent Columbia Univ hate crime was a hoax?

It sounded fishy, and then the Columbia Univ. police seemed to become uncooperative (as if they were trying to avoid revealing a hoax).
12.19.2007 11:26pm
GV:
Something is irrational and you wonder why people do it? Because people are irrational. We often say and do things without thinking through the costs and the benefits.

On what basis does the author of the linked article base his belief that fake hate crimes are "common" on college campuses?

And aren't there just two incidents in the news of fake hate crimes? Maybe I missed something.
12.19.2007 11:37pm
George Weiss (mail):
GV

i agree.

people who are used to analyzing things economically too often confuse the basic idea that people are rational in the AGGREGATE with the (false) idea that all people are rational.
12.19.2007 11:41pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
There are several. Another bit of advice: Don't beat yourself up in a field of fresh snow where you'll only leave a single set of footprints.
12.19.2007 11:41pm
karrde (mail) (www):
During my last year in grad school, someone at the campus scribbled hateful threats (in chalk, in various pieces of sidewalk on campus) against the lives of a minority on campus...on the day before that minority group were going to stage the culmination of a week-long effort to raise awareness of their status.

I don't know if the case has been solved.

It could have been a hoax. Or it could have been a genuine, if unfulfilled, threat. The timing of the event, within a month of the end of the term, meant that 25% of the student body (the most likely suspects) would be leaving town soon.
No one was seen doing the deed; it occurred sometime between midnight Thursday and 3:30 am Friday. Circumstances of discovery did not preclude the first discoverer's involvement in the setup of the event. However, the fact that it was left in threats chalked in 20+ locations across a quarter-mile of sidewalk and building walls indicate that if it was a hoax, it was a daring one.

The event did cause the University President to issue a public statement against that particular form of hatred, and raised the visibility of a group that had already spent a week reminding the campus of their existence and their right to be accepted.

The strongest argument in favor of the event being a hoax is the fact that no reports were filed of actual assaults. The student group thought that their show of strength the next day, with the help of the University President, may have saved them. It is as easy to believe that the threats were a hoax as it is to believe that the threatening person changed their minds based on the public show of support by the University authorities. Both are possible; it is hard to tell which was/is more likely.

I mention this (mostly) to underline the fact that a successful hoax would be extremely hard to distinguish from a real threat.

Is there any category of law under which hoaxes can be punished, and punished harshly? I hesitate to recommend new laws, though perhaps a punishment for false reporting, or some method by which hoax-threat-perpetrators can be charged as if the threats were genuine, could be used.
12.19.2007 11:58pm
Christopher M (mail):
Well, it wouldn't be enough (for Prof. Somin's suggestion to be correct) that it's easy to get away with a hate crime hoax; it would also have to be the case that students like Nava know that it's easy. But Prof. Somin himself is only willing to say that it's "possible" that it's easy to get away with one. There seems to be some tension between these two aspects of the analysis.
12.20.2007 12:10am
Bleepless (mail):
Why? Easy. There are two categories. First, those who feel that victory for justice (also known as the higher truth) trumps facts. Second, those seeking martyr-heroism and being stroked while preening and acting persecuted. These are not mutually-exclusive reasons.
12.20.2007 12:16am
Visitor Again:
The woman who faked a hate crime at was it Claremont College or Pomona served time. She damaged her car and if memory serves filed a fraudulent insurance claim.

People who fake hate crimes are in my bad book not only because they waste resources, disrupt the normal order of things and cause undue concern and fear but also because they undermine the effort to combat real hate crimes. You can see from the posts on this and previous threads that many people doubt the legitimacy of a hate crime report, particularly on a college campus, from the moment it is made.

That is to be edpected, I guess, even though fairness should require judging each report on its own merits. It's not like the same person crying wolf over and over again; the reports of hate crimes come from different people, each of whom deserves to have his or her report judged on its own merits.
12.20.2007 12:17am
TerrencePhilip:
I can't wait till the "real perpetrators" of the Columbia noose incident are brought to justice for their crime.
12.20.2007 12:28am
Ilya Somin:
Well, it wouldn't be enough (for Prof. Somin's suggestion to be correct) that it's easy to get away with a hate crime hoax; it would also have to be the case that students like Nava know that it's easy. But Prof. Somin himself is only willing to say that it's "possible" that it's easy to get away with one.

The fact that I only think that it's possible for it to be easy to get away with a hoax, doesn't mean that a potential perpetrator couldn't come to a more definitive and (perhaps) better-informed conclusion.
12.20.2007 12:50am
Brian K (mail):
as long as we are throwing out hypotheticals...

what if we assume he was acting rationally and wanted to get caught? by getting caught he raises awareness of fake crime hoaxes and as a result the next time there is a real hate crime people will ignore/discount it as a fake.

this makes sense if you believe most hate crimes are made against liberal groups and/or caused by conservative groups. then the short term damage to conservatives will be outweighed by the fact that people will suspect the liberal victim is a liar.
12.20.2007 1:38am
A.:

After all, if the perpetrator gets caught, his reputation is likely to take a major hit and the cause he espouses will suffer a setback in the court of public opinion.


I don't know... Tawana Brawley was caught, and yet Al Sharpton's reputation is doing as well as ever within his target demographic. I wouldn't be too surprised if he runs for president again.
12.20.2007 2:15am
David M. Nieporent (www):
this makes sense if you believe most hate crimes are made against liberal groups and/or caused by conservative groups. then the short term damage to conservatives will be outweighed by the fact that people will suspect the liberal victim is a liar.
Well, yes, except for the minor problem that there isn't just "short term damage to conservatives," but long term damage to the perpetrator.
12.20.2007 2:27am
David M. Nieporent (www):
this makes sense if you believe most hate crimes are made against liberal groups and/or caused by conservative groups. then the short term damage to conservatives will be outweighed by the fact that people will suspect the liberal victim is a liar.
Well, yes, except for the minor problem that there isn't just "short term damage to conservatives," but long term damage to the perpetrator.
12.20.2007 2:27am
Frater Plotter:
There might be another controlling factor. Many of these hoax incidents stem from colleges and universities, and the perpetrators are revealed to be undergraduates. It should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever worked in undergraduate education, or for that matter anyone who has memories of their own undergraduate years that are relatively clear and unfogged by drink, that ...

Undergrads are drama queens.

No, seriously. We're talking about people of an age and social status where the most important thing in the world is to have an interesting social life. Not a stable or satisfying or even pleasurable one: an interesting one. Which pretty much means -- as it is called in the jargon -- teh drama.
12.20.2007 2:51am
Brian K (mail):
but long term damage to the perpetrator.

not necessarily. if he is trying to get a job with a partisan actor it might help him. if there are no criminal charges it is highly likely that it won't follow him around much longer than his first job or so. and if discovered by future employers it can be explained away as "youthful indiscretion", "young and stupid" something else. it is surprising what can get explained away like that.

all that matters is his subjective determination of the risk to reward ratio. and we see all the time in politics that people are willing to take a hit to save their party and/or future book deals.
12.20.2007 3:55am
Brian K (mail):
whoops...bad formatting:


not necessarily. if he is trying to get a job with a partisan actor it might help him. if there are no criminal charges it is highly likely that it won't follow him around much longer than his first job or so. and if discovered by future employers it can be explained away as "youthful indiscretion", "young and stupid" something else. it is surprising what can get explained away like that. all that matters is his subjective determination of the risk to reward ratio.

and we see all the time in politics that people are willing to take a hit to save their party and/or future book deals.
12.20.2007 3:56am
A.C.:
We all know that SOME young people, at least, are willing to accept a lot more risk than their elders. Under-25s have higher car insurance premiums for a reason.
12.20.2007 9:06am
Ken Arromdee:
Here's a theory: Hate crime hoaxes are usually of a nature that benefit left wing causes. Since the left has a lot of influence at universities, university systems have evolved so that fake hate crimes don't get punished much. Then when a right-wing fake hate crime turns up, the perpetrator benefits from the system.

(There's a similar theory about Fred Phelps' protests at funerals. Many people and groups who don't like Phelps' protests supported laws and court rulings that allowed intrusive protests by the left, which Phelps then took advantage of.)
12.20.2007 10:03am
IB Bill (mail) (www):
I'm stunned that a conservative did this. And all this time I've been laughing at how the left goes on and on about victimhood. Perhaps some conservatives have developed a sense of victimhood, too. Which is not very conservative.

Anyway, this goes to show that jerks are jerks, and you don't get baptized into purity based on your political affiliation.
12.20.2007 10:07am
Justin (mail):
"By definition, it's tough to detect a successful hoax; after all, if it's been detected, that means it's no longer a success. Nonetheless, it is at least possible that the rash of failed hate crime hoaxes is an indication that others may have succeeded."

The logic of this statement is sound - but isn't it the same logic that is panned by supporters of the death penalty, for the position that the US has executed innocent people?
12.20.2007 10:33am
Elliot Reed (mail):
For that matter, I wonder how common fake non-hate crimes are. People definitely steal their own cars and fake their own deaths in order to get insurance money. I'm sure people sometimes fake other crimes in order to get attention and sympathy. We wouldn't hear much about uncovered hoaxes because they don't relate to hot-button political/social issues. How many hoaxes like that are there?
12.20.2007 11:52am
Harry Eagar (mail):
I was in college long, long before the concept 'hate crime' was invented, but we had several incidents of fake crimes.

Out of a population of 10,000, at least a few score to a few hundred will be seriously mentally ill. And/or, as Frater says, drama queens.

Children, which is what college students are (although that California car vandalism was by a teacher), will be dramatic in the context of what they know, which doesn't go back very far.

In the '60s, teenage bogey men were more likely to be described as random maniacs than as hate-crimesters.

Thus, on our campus a sick boy committed suicide by trussing himself up and choking himself to death. It appeared he had been trussed, rather than had trussed himself, and because the Genteel Beast reigned in the administration, the fact that it was a suicide was suppressed.

No surprise, there was a panic about a random murderer and then a second incident where the 'victim' claimed to have been attacked from behind.

The college newspaper exposed it. Plus ca change . . .
12.20.2007 1:04pm
Disoriented:
Wouldn't a better question be how many crimes in general are investigated and later revealed to be hoaxes? Only then can we really determine if certain crimes are more prone to be fakes then others. I think all this attention on hate crimes may be valid and understandable, given its politically volatile history, but I certainly don't believe hoaxes are limited to this class of crime only.
12.20.2007 2:39pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Aside from wondering how often these events must occur before we can label them "quite common," I think Frater Plotter has it exactly right.
12.20.2007 2:58pm
MRM (mail):
Its been a few years since I saw the play, but Spinning Into Buttar (I believe that is the name) is a great play about this exact subject. In anyone else familiar with this play?
12.20.2007 3:10pm
MRM (mail):
Its been a few years since I saw the play, but Spinning Into Buttar (I believe that is the name) is a great play about this exact subject. In anyone else familiar with this play?
12.20.2007 3:10pm
ikl (mail):
This is an odd post. I would think that the default assumption should be that people who fake hate crimes have psychological problems. Ignoring this explanation in the absence of other data seems a bit obtuse.
12.20.2007 3:18pm
Federal Dog:
"After all, if the perpetrator gets caught, his reputation is likely to take a major hit and the cause he espouses will suffer a setback in the court of public opinion."


With one exception that I can think of (Keri Dunn), this is not been the case if the perpetrator supports leftist causes. Quite the contrary. The hoax will almost invariably be deemed a reflection of real social problems, and a legitimate effort to raise awareness about them.
12.20.2007 3:21pm
The Chief (mail):
Two points should be added to this discussion:
1) In the 24/7 "news" environment, outrage (regardless of where it comes from on the wingnuttery scale) gets considerable play... the revelation that the outrage was unfounded gets considerably less. I can assure you that many rightwingnutters haven't gotten the message that Mr. Nava faked his own attack and in six months, this "outrageous assault" will be presented as "proof" that leftwingnuts are violent.
2) As can be seen in some posts in this discussion, we are attracted to our own narratives, and will adapt a story to fit our narrative. To some, Mr. Nava must be a liberal seeking to undermine conservatives, to others a conservative trying to call attention to all the fakers in the leftwingnuttery. "Some people" may say that because it is difficult to distinguish real hate crimes from hate crime hoaxes, we should presume all are hoaxes (and since most hate crimes target "liberal" causes/issues - all liberals are liars).
The reality is Mr. Nava wanted to be the BMOC and a hero within his peer group. His peer group was campus conservatives. What better way to be the hero, the BMOC (and maybe get some lovin') than to be the "victim" of a perceived enemy?
The reality is Mr. Nava is a college student - there is not a whole lot of credibility to lose in the long run.
In short, the reality is Mr. Nava is just a kid who did a dumbass thing. The Republic will survive.
12.20.2007 3:42pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It appears getting away with it may depend on whether you attend/work for Columbia.
12.20.2007 3:46pm
John Kunze:
1) Jails are full of people who thought they would not get caught and were wrong. Streets are full of people who think they won't get caught and are right (so far).

2) It will be very difficult to prevent people from throwing nooses around by catching them dead to rights. And every noose found generates copycats. I can't prove it but it is likely that if there had been no Jena there would have been no Columbia.

3) We can't know how many unprosecuted events were hate crimes vs. hoaxes.

4) Since most Americans would never commit such things, it would be best if these acts were not noticed, publicized, and remembered. We need to develop thick skins where we can. Not that we can ignore the plight of anyone who truly feels threatened by such acts. But let's ask victims to distinguish between being insulted and being threatened. It's not fair, but its better for all of us if leaving nooses around loses its power.
12.20.2007 3:58pm
fishbane (mail):
There should be some consequences for the waste of resources, but the kid is pretty obviously looking for attention, seems to have identity/group belonging issues, and needs some help.

A decent psychologist would be much more useful than many other sanctions.

This goes for the rest of the people who pull this sort of stunt, whatever the reason/ideology.
12.20.2007 4:40pm
PersonFromPorlock:
karrde:

Is there any category of law under which hoaxes can be punished, and punished harshly?

A pretty good case can be made that faking a hate crime is itself a hate crime against its supposed perpetrators. On the other hand, a pretty good case can also be made for ignoring young idiots, where the fakers are young idiots.
12.20.2007 5:26pm
stunned:

The fact that I only think that it's possible for it to be easy to get away with a hoax, doesn't mean that a potential perpetrator couldn't come to a more definitive and (perhaps) better-informed conclusion.


I just can't imagine how someone would come to a better-informed conclusion. Are we talking about some kind of clandestine network of fake hate-crime hoaxers sharing tips, tricks and tales of past successes? I can't think of a single hypothetical situation that would non-trivially impact the rate of fake hate crimes. (I can imagine one fake hate crimer telling a few other people, but as the size of the network of people with knowledge rises, the likelihood of the hoax becoming known does as well.)

Absent some method of obtaining better information, the perp's assessment of the risk of getting caught provides no insight into the actual risk -- and consequently the success rate of fake hate crimes -- no matter how "definitive" it is in his mind.
12.20.2007 7:27pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Not necessarily. if he is trying to get a job with a partisan actor it might help him. if there are no criminal charges it is highly likely that it won't follow him around much longer than his first job or so. and if discovered by future employers it can be explained away as "youthful indiscretion", "young and stupid" something else. it is surprising what can get explained away like that.
The issue being discussed on campus right now is whether Nava is going to be expelled or merely suspended. (And there's still a chance of criminal charges.) In 20 years, nobody will care what a 22 year old did in college, no matter how stupid. But they will care if he has a criminal conviction on his record, or if he failed to graduate from college. (Or if he graduated from Rutgers rather than Princeton.)
12.21.2007 2:48am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Not necessarily. if he is trying to get a job with a partisan actor it might help him. if there are no criminal charges it is highly likely that it won't follow him around much longer than his first job or so. and if discovered by future employers it can be explained away as "youthful indiscretion", "young and stupid" something else. it is surprising what can get explained away like that.
The issue being discussed on campus right now is whether Nava is going to be expelled or merely suspended. (And there's still a chance of criminal charges.) In 20 years, nobody will care what a 22 year old did in college, no matter how stupid. But they will care if he has a criminal conviction on his record, or if he failed to graduate from college. (Or if he graduated from Rutgers rather than Princeton.)
12.21.2007 2:48am
Brian K (mail):
like I said david, all that matters is his subjective interpretations of the risk:reward ratio. since he went ahead and attempted the hoax in the first place, we already know he is not calculating the ratio in the same way that you or i would and we already know that he determined the reward of whatever his goal was outweighed any associated risks.
12.21.2007 4:12am
Just a Bill:
I agree with GV & others that Ilya overstates the role of economic rationality in these cases; I wonder if a better model for understanding this kind of thing comes from anthropology (and no, IANAA).

Ilya Somin: "After all, if the [hoax] perpetrator gets caught, his reputation is likely to take a major hit and the cause he espouses will suffer a setback in the court of public opinion."

I wonder whether these Hate Hoaxes are chiefly about addressing a broader court of public opinion, vs. about in-group dynamics? Becoming a pariah to The Enemy (or even to The Great Unwashed Masses) is a small price to pay if you become a saint to The Elect. (E.g. what price, really, has Duke's Group of 88 paid for their enabling role?)

Also, as several posters (e.g. this one) pointed out, exposed hoaxers may not suffer in-group censure -- they might even get in-group approval. Nava's case is unusual, and IMHO a credit to the Anscombe folks, in that he was promptly and definitively rebuked by his in-group.
12.21.2007 12:39pm
Just a Bill:
I'm glad that "A" mentioned the Tawana Brawley/Al Sharpton ur-hoax, but in reading about it, even I was shocked to learn just how low the cost was to the fakers, and just how profitable the outcome was, thanks again to the continuing support of the in-group (and thanks to fleeing across state lines to escape NY law).

Supporters of the econ-rationalist model of explaining hate hoaxes, repeat to yourself the words of Tawana Brawley's (n/k/a Maryam Muhammad) mother twenty years after the hoax: "We should be millionaires." (wiki, nydn)

Millionaires? No. (Though they did abscond with a third of a million.) But heroes to a bunch of in-group dead-enders? Oh yes.
12.21.2007 1:00pm
gasman (mail):
There can be no hate crime hoax.
A hate crime now is defined as an act that might cause alarm, fear, or other negative feeling in the 'victim'. It has nothing to do with the state of mind of the perpetrator of the crime. Because the state of mind is irrelevant, there is no reason to determine as a matter of fact whether the crime involved actual hate, youthful arrogance, misplaced mirthfulness, or an opposing political opinion.
Determining whether a hoax is a hoax depends upon knowning the state of mind. Since hate crime is defined as a crime without respect to state of mind, then it cannot be hoaxed or otherwise.
12.21.2007 5:48pm