Why do people report fake hate crimes?

A New York City college student is accused of fabricating a hate crime to police, making her part of a small but significant group of people who have falsely reported discriminatory crimes.

Steve Helber/AP/File
City workers prepare to clean graffiti from the statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va., days after the presidential election.

A Muslim college student who claimed to be the victim of a religiously based hate crime in New York City has now been accused of fabricating the account, sparking outrage and confusion around an incident that sounded all too real in the post-election climate.

In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, reports of hate crimes and bias-fueled incidents have surged, causing alarm in racial and religious minority groups as well as among women and the LGBT community. While an overwhelming amount of those will likely hold true and become tangible manifestation of bias and hatred across the United States, it’s statistically likely that several will not.

Hate crime hoaxes do occasionally occur, and have for years, says Brian Levin, the director of California State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

“People will ... falsify all kinds of events – from hate crimes to resumes,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “This is nothing indigenous to hate crimes.”

But issuing a false report regarding a hate crime carries different consequences than falsifying fraud or theft. Much like high-profile sexual assault cases later proved untrue, fake hate crime reporting has a tendency to shed doubt over other cases with similar narratives, a phenomenon which doesn’t tend to happen with other types of crimes.

“Auto theft, domestic violence, sexual assault, thefts – are all things where we have false reporting, yet, by the same token, we don’t use that to impugn the general category,” Professor Levin says.

This incident began when Yasmin Seweid, a Brooklyn native and student at Baruch College in Manhattan, told The New York Daily News earlier this month that three drunk white men accosted her on the subway, screaming “Donald Trump!” and using anti-Muslim slurs toward her. Eventually, the incident escalated and they tried to pull her hijab from her head, she said.

“It made me really sad after when I thought about it,” she told the Daily News. “People were looking at me and looking at what was happening and no one said a thing. They just looked away.”

Ms. Seweid’s story had all of the hallmarks of a modern hate crime, especially those that have made headlines following President-elect Donald Trump’s victory. Her story was compelling, sparking outrage and contributing to anxieties plaguing the Muslim community. Dozens of New Yorkers flocked to Grand Central Station the following day, carrying signs that read, “not in our city” and standing in solidarity with her and other minorities.

In New York City alone, hate crimes have spiked by 115 percent following the election, with police receiving 43 reports by early December, compared to just 20 during the same timeframe last year, police said during a Dec. 5 press conference. Of those, 24 were anti-Semitic while four targeted Muslims.

But police struggled to track down witnesses and failed to uncover any surveillance footage of Seweid's attack. On Wednesday, they declared it a hoax, taking her into custody on misdemeanor charges of filing a false report and obstructing government administration, according to The Washington Post.

Seweid’s alleged hoax isn’t the first of its kind to follow the election, where reports of hate crimes have spiked. Last month, a college student in Louisiana told police a similar story in which a man wearing a Trump hat beat and robbed her, pulling off her hijab. Police later determined the incident had not occurred and dropped the investigation.

In 2014, there were 6,418 hate crimes reported and 6,385 bias incidents, according to the FBI. Levin has closely studied the New York Police Department's hate crime division, finding that around 9 percent of crimes reported to detectives there are reclassified annually. While some of those may have been shifted to other departments or failed to meet the bar to become a hate crime, some are hoaxes, he says.

“Among the thousands of hate crimes every year, we have some hoaxes sprinkled in there,” he says. “We’ve had an increase in hate crimes in the United States, and hoaxes have routinely come up, but not in a way that impacts the overall trend and overwhelming majority of cases. Hate crime hoaxes are an extremely small, but nevertheless relevant category.”

In addition to hate crimes falsely reported to police, others have spread on social media, where users have unfettered access to large groups of followers. These unvetted incidents often go viral but aren’t always reported to authorities, and it’s impossible to count or verify the allegations as their numbers grow.

Trump supporters have fired back on social media, using the hashtag #fakehatecrime in an attempt to discredit recent hate crime reports as the acts of Hillary Clinton supporters following the election. Users have blamed swastika graffiti and other vandalism on Democrats, arguing they're committing the acts in order to paint Trump voters in a negative light. 

There are different reasons someone might falsify a hate crime, including a psychological impairment, a need for attention, or as a way to increase support for a cause they believe has fallen by the wayside.

“A lot of it might be attention,” Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the California State University Santislaus, tells the Monitor. “Some of them may feel they have a cause that’s not receiving attention. We’ve been hearing a lot about hate crimes. If that’s been in the news, they may kind of seize on that as a thing.”

While their numbers are few, the people who fall into those categories can have an impact on actual victims of hate crimes and public perception of those crimes.

"What’s a lot more common is people who are victims and don’t report it," says Dr. Gerstenfeld, who wrote the book "Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies."

"They may have poor relationships with law enforcement. If they’re undocumented, the last thing they want to do is go to law enforcement," she says. "They may be afraid of being falsely accused of making it up.”

But it’s important to examine incidents like this in context, experts say, noting that the vast majority of reported hate crimes come from real incidents and attacks that have the ability to traumatize victims and spread fear through communities. Remembering that hoaxes are rare and not using them as the lens through which to view all similar crimes is just as important as acknowledging authenticated stories of hate-based acts.

“Both hate crimes and hoaxes have an effect on the community,” Levin says.

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