Whenever individuals perpetuate hoaxes in mainstream and social media, others are injured by the lies along with the causes they feigned to advance. This month two academics acknowledged and then apologized for fictive characters they invented–a Black activist and a American Indian #MeTooSTEM anthropologist. This post reminds journalists and practitioners of their social responsibility to identify and expose hoaxes.
In an essay on Medium, titled “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of my Lies,” Jessica Krug, associate professor of history at George Washington University, admitted that she “eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then U.S. rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.”
Inside Higher Ed reported neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, a founder of the MeTooSTEM organization, “admitted Tuesday to creating a fake friend on Twitter, running the anonymous account for years and then killing off the persona with a case of teaching-related COVID-19.”
Journalists and practitioners must guard against hoaxes, which play on common fears, desires, convictions, values and cultures of a target audience or clientele. Hoaxers create opportunities to manipulate mainstream and social media by perpetuating:
- Fear of a certain race, ethnicity, sex, disability, protected or social-class group.
- Desire to be recognized or compensated for activism, victimization, innovation and contribution on trending topics.
- Belief that certain people of a particular race, ethnicity, sex, disability or social class are inherently immoral/moral, unintelligent /intelligent, privileged/disadvantaged, etc.
- Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
- Conviction about political party, candidate, celebrity, religious deity, government policy, entitlement, legal case, etc.
It is important for journalists and practitioners to know the various ethics terms used to define these concepts.
Invention happens from within the organization–a reporter fabricates quotations or sources, for instance–and so does not qualify as a hoax. A hoax relies entirely upon manipulation of media by an outside source whose sole goal is to program agendas according to their motives. A culture vulture is an inauthentic person who practices cultural appropriation in an attempt to identify with aspects of another culture and claim it as their own.
Hoaxes harm newsrooms, agencies and organizations because they:
- Jeopardize personal credibility.
- Harm corporate brand or non-profit reputation.
- Expose personal beliefs of journalists and practitioners.
- Demean, trivialize or exploit cultural beliefs.
- Cause innocent others irreparable harm.
Harm happens to innocent parties that mistakenly embraced the fictive personae of hoaxes. In the case of a white person claiming to be Black or American Indian, the hoaxer exploits people of color.
Inside Higher Ed called attention to Krug’s author bio in the online magazine RaceBaitr as an “unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood.” The publication retracted Krug’s article and ran this notice on Twitter:
McLaughlin’s fabricated anonymous anthropologist, aka @Sciencing_Bi, not only exploited the Hopi Tribe but fears of teachers returning to the classroom and being exposed to COVID-19. That made her hoax especially harmful.
Racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes and supremacists often use baseless claims in hoaxes as fodder for conspiracy theories that may lead to physical and verbal violence, undermining legitimate cases for equity, equality and inclusion.
Living Media Ethics dedicates a chapter to hoaxes and how journalists and practitioners can identify and expose them.
- Always question the motive of the source. Nothing frightens a manipulator more than questions about “motive.” In fact, use that word in your questions.
- Always question your own needs. Determine whether the source knows how your media outlet operates. In fact, ask a question using a jargon word related to your outlet or newsroom. Assess your own eagerness to pursue the story
- Always question the impact on audience. Determine how the source’s story, problem, discovery or product will affect your readers, viewers or customers. Assess how much the audience desires or fears what the source is peddling.
- Always assess your own fears, desires, convictions or values. Ultimately hoaxers rely on you, not your outlet, as the medium for manipulation. The more your beliefs go unacknowledged, the easier it will be for the hoaxer to prey on them to achieve his or her goal.
Finally, it behooves us to remember the causes that Krug and McLaughlin harmed: equity, equality and inclusion for people of color. Journalists and practitioners are socially responsible for affirming those tenets in their reports and campaigns.