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9 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:06am

Keeping it real: how to fight hate-crime hoaxing

To combat both hoaxes and hoax-hoaxes, we should try to be non-partisan in scrutinising claims on social media.

By Amelia Tait

The first thing that the 16-year-old Kiaira Manuel did when she saw a sign reading “Colours only” over a water fountain at her high school in Florida was go to her school’s administrators.

“They said they were going to handle it, but so many things go unnoticed at this school and they just don’t care,” she tells me, explaining her decision to post a picture of the sign on social media. “So this was taped above the water fountains at my school . . .” she captioned the image. It was shared more than 1,500 times on Twitter.

It only took a day for someone to call her a liar. “We go to the same school,” the Twitter user @iH8Thots wrote. “I watched you put that piece of paper up there and take the picture.” His accusation was shared hundreds of times. Manuel blocked him. Many of those who were sending her abuse interpreted this as “proof” that he was right.

This happened in January, but in the past weeks Manuel has received a new wave of accusations. The timing is no accident. Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election, there has been an increase in hate crimes in the US: the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights organisation in Montgomery, Alabama, has logged more than 200 complaints. There has also been a rise in the number of people trying to discredit alleged hate crimes by labelling them as hoaxes.

A glance at @iH8Thots’s profile page is enough to cast doubt on his accusations. When he posted his tweet, Manuel claims, his account stated that he was in California, 3,000 miles from her school. His profile picture currently shows a man in a gas mask holding a gun, and the page is full of pro-Trump and anti-liberal tweets. But few thought to check, either when he first made his accusation or since it reappeared.

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This case seems to be part of a social media trend that I call a “hoax-hoax”. It goes like this: someone posts evidence of a hate crime. Someone else uses false evidence to “prove” that the original post was a hoax. This, however, is the real hoax. It’s a lie claiming that someone else lied – a double hoax.

Manuel tells me that her school seemed reluctant to act. “When I put [the picture] on social media, it was forcing them to pay attention and actually do something about it,” she says. Some people – especially those who are already disenfranchised– feel they are better off using social media, rather than relying on official channels.

“That’s why we put stuff as ‘Unproven’,” says Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the world’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, which labels stories “True”, “False”, “Mixture”, or “Unproven”. It recently labelled a story about a Muslim woman who was allegedly told to hang herself with her hijab at a Walmart as “Unproven”, after the police said they had not heard about the attack.

“We didn’t want to say ‘False’, because there’s not much we can do if two people were involved and neither of them are talking and nobody saw it. Maybe she didn’t want to go to the police . . . The people who are doing it aren’t going to say, ‘We told her to hang herself by her hijab.’”

Snopes is a non-partisan site and it investigates claims based on how many emails the team receives about a story. Hoax hate crimes, which right-wingers often call “false flags”, do take place, though Binkowski says they are “extremely rare”. The conservative news website Breitbart claims that there have been more than 100 in the past ten years. But compare that to the 2,241 racially or religiously aggravated offences that occurred in the UK in the two weeks after the EU referendum.

On social media, we should fact-check posts before we share them, so they can’t be adopted by hoaxers with another agenda. In Manuel’s case, checks by other people would have saved her a lot of pain. Her Twitter mentions are still being flooded with offensive messages.

Being sceptical about a post that seems a little off is not the same as denying that hate crimes are happening. To combat both hoaxes and hoax-hoaxes, we should try to be non-partisan in scrutinising claims on social media.

Binkowski explains: “Even if you don’t have much time, if you read something on some site that doesn’t quite ring true or seems too perfect, then google it. Just google it.” 

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