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Renée Graham

Hoaxes harm real victims

During a press conference on Nov. 29 in Washington, the Southern Poverty Law Center joined with human rights groups and education leaders to call on Donald Trump to “immediately and forcefully publicly denounce racism and bigotry.”Win McNamee/Getty Images

It was heartbreaking, a few weeks ago, to read of a young Muslim woman attacked, her hijab almost ripped off, and told by three men on a New York subway train to “Get the hell out of the country.”

It was even more devastating to learn, a few days ago, that her story was a hoax. Yasmin Seweid, a Long Island, N.Y., teenager whose harrowing claims made international headlines, has been charged with falsifying a police report and obstructing governmental administration. Both misdemeanors, each carries a sentence of up to a year in jail.

What transpires in the mind of someone who pretends to have been targeted by a terrible crime is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is a psychological issue or a desperate bid for public sympathy. It could be a misdirected desire to garner attention for a particular issue. In regards to Seweid, various news outlets have reported that her ruse may have been an attempt to avoid her father’s ire for drinking and breaking curfew.

Whatever the case, her hoax could not have unraveled at a worse time. Since Election Day, hate crimes nationwide have skyrocketed. Those emboldened by Donald Trump’s unvarnished bigotry during the campaign have all but declared open season on anyone of a different race, religion, sexual or gender identity. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, there were more than 1,000 “bias-related incidents” between Nov. 9, the day after Trump’s election victory, and Dec. 12. They have ranged from verbal assaults to physical confrontations, with the vast majority targeting immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community. (There were also 26 reported anti-Trump incidents.)


Nearly 37 percent of all incidents directly referenced the president-elect, his inflammatory campaign rhetoric, or his recorded comment about the nonconsensual grabbing of women.


The Southern Poverty Law Center has also tracked 13 false reports but, in its latest “Hatewatch” update, states, “the right-wing narrative that this wave of incidents are all hoaxes simply doesn’t stand up to the numbers. Counting all 13 false reports … amounts to just over one percent of the total number of incidents collected in this update.”

Of course, those interested in discrediting victims of hate tend to ignore facts and details. Here’s another fact: while hoaxes of this sort are rare, they undermine all who report acts of bigotry. It recalls the infamous Tawana Brawley case that roiled New York in the late 1980s. Brawley, a black teenager, claimed several white men smeared her with feces, scrawled racial slurs on her body, and raped her. While Brawley has always maintained that she told the truth, there was never any evidence to corroborate her story. Brawley’s likely falsehood sent a chill through those convinced all future accusations of sexual or racist violence would be dismissed as elaborate lies.

To be sure, hoaxes cross racial, ethnic, and political lines. In 2008, Ashley Todd, a McCain campaign volunteer, falsely claimed she was knocked to the ground and robbed by an Obama supporter in Pittsburgh who then carved a ‘B,’ presumably for Barack, on her face. Like Seweid, she was similarly charged.

As with false accusations of rape that are small — only 2 to 8 percent, according to the FBI — compared to the number of actual rapes, hoaxes create a dishonest narrative that further marginalizes those more likely to be victimized. If Seweid needs professional help, she should get it. In the meantime, the world is already frightening enough. No one needs to concoct fictions about vile acts of bigotry already too prevalent in our society.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com.