Hoax Watch

|

Remember that story saying Homeland Security had investigated a student for requesting a copy of Mao's Little Red Book? In case any of you were wondering how it panned out: It isn't true.

Also, that whole Sacco and Vanzetti thing isn't looking very good either.

NEXT: Lifting the Scales Off Their Eyes

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “The story…prompted diatribes on left-wing and right-wing blogs.”

    -From people who will believe almost any unsubstantiated claim or “news” story so long as it feeds the daily blog cycle and gives them a soapbox for their crackpot opinions.

  2. Well there’s still Alger Hiss…
    Oh wait.

  3. “Well there’s still Alger Hiss…
    Oh wait.”

    I’m not sure I follow you. I thought Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy.

  4. “anarchists (Sacco and Vanzetti) . . . have been viewed as martyrs by the American left ever since. “

    “Anarchists” – “left”?. My how times have changed.

  5. emme,
    Exactly. We’re looking for examples of people wrongly accused.

  6. I thought the whole thing smelled from the get-go. Five seconds of thought would have made nearly anyone very, very skeptical.

    Yet another too-good-to-check, fake-but-accurate story.

  7. “They all lied,” said Gambera, a retired English professor living in San Rafael. “They did it for the cause.”
    ***
    Fake, but accurate?

  8. To link this with another thread: If his research had required IRB approval there would have been more of a paper trail and this hoax would have been easier to expose.

    (I keed! I keed!)

  9. I knew this story was most likely bad when they posted it on Boing Boing and almost immediately began updating and backpedaling.

  10. So, we can all agree that the reporters should have investigated more carefully. But what about bloggers?

    One could make the argument that the blogosphere’s strength is that it brings to bear “distributed expertise.” Soon after the story came out, on another forum (Boing Boing, I think?) people started remarking that the university library doesn’t require the Social Security number on interlibrary loan requests. And that the university doesn’t even use the SSN as a student ID number. I’m sure that other things could have come out with more careful examination by the blogosphere.

    So, while the reporter, with the resources of a newspaper, acted poorly, do bloggers really deserve criticism for passing it on? Isn’t the whole idea of the blogosphere that stories should be passed on and examined by thousands or even millions of readers?

    And if a newspaper reporter acts irresponsibly, as this one did, doesn’t that make it even more crucial that the bloggers pass it on and subject it to the scrutiny of their audiences?

  11. Basically, what I’m getting at is this: If bloggers had not passed it on, it would have been a minor item with little notice outside the immediate circulation of the paper. The reporter would have escaped chastisement, and not been reminded how sloppy he was. The student would have gotten a little satisfaction from painting himself as the local victim. And without the rapid circulation of the blogosphere, the story probably would have passed around in various forms, becoming an urban legend.

    Instead, it’s been thoroughly discredited.

    So, I ask again, was it irresponsible for bloggers to circulate this story?

  12. Circulating this and other unsubstantiated items has greater consequences than the ultimate discrediting of the source(s). Lots of stuff happens in between. Sometimes people lose their lives and liberty and reputations. So yes, it’s irresponsible to participate in the spreading of rumors and hearsay.

  13. OK, naysayer. What if a blogger put in this disclaimer before posting it:

    “Here’s an interesting story. Some of it sounds a little fishy, and the sources are scarce, but my hunches could just as easily be wrong. Can anybody here offer some insight one way or the other?”

    If the blogger put in that little proviso before linking to the story, and encouraged more vetting in the comments section, would that still be irresponsible?

  14. So, I ask again, was it irresponsible for bloggers to circulate this story?

    Absolutely not. To uncritically post something like this is bit lame, though. It was a weird story (DHS investigating Mao readers and blatantly questioning them?) that a journalistic blogger should realize was just “too good” in the sense of confirming one’s pre-existing beliefs. It should have been presented more warily in places like Boing Boing.

    On the other hand, the Boing Boing (and other) folks quickly and readily relayed the questioning and doubt of more skeptical readers. This was admirable – and their updates were about the best roundup and summary of coverage I’ve seen on the story.

    And, absolutely, any credulity on the part of any blogger about this story pales before the sheer ineptitude of the newspaper reporter who couldn’t even bother contacting people to try to confirm or deny any of the details. This sort of thing is why I’m bullish on blogs and bearish on older media in the short term.

  15. Has the Sinclair letter been authenticated?

  16. If the blogger put in that little proviso before linking to the story

    I’d be completely happy in that case.

  17. So, I ask again, was it irresponsible for bloggers to circulate this story?

    Nope. It was irresponsible to declare it proven before it was demonstrated to be true (or, for that matter, to declare it disproven before it was demonstrated to be false), but passing it along is perfectly kosher. And I’m not just saying that because I passed it along myself.

    Of course, some die-harders will probably continue to insist that it’s true, just as others continue to insist that the 60 Minutes documents were valid, or that U.S. troops really did discover a working WMD program in Iraq, or whatever tall tale they trumpeted too loudly to back down from.

  18. “would that still be irresponsible?”

    That’s like a debater saying he doesn’t really believe his opponent is a cannibal and child molester but he did read it somewhere, so maybe you should check it out yourself before you pass judgement on this alleged cannibal and child molester.

  19. Eric and Jesse-

    Your comments make sense.

    Naysayer-

    You nayly say: “That’s like a debater saying he doesn’t really believe his opponent is a cannibal and child molester but he did read it somewhere, so maybe you should check it out yourself before you pass judgement on this alleged cannibal and child molester.”

    What if a blogger said “Hey, these documents that I saw on the news yesterday seem a little fishy, but I could be wrong. They just don’t look like the sort of documents that I remember seeing from the typical typewriter back in the 1970’s. Then again, the 1970’s were a while back, and I was partying a lot. So, can anybody tell me whether these documents are authentic? I’m linking to the CBS web page, where there are copies.”

    Would that blogger be irresponsible?

  20. Circulating this and other unsubstantiated items has greater consequences than the ultimate discrediting of the source(s). Lots of stuff happens in between. Sometimes people lose their lives and liberty and reputations. So yes, it’s irresponsible to participate in the spreading of rumors and hearsay.

    But that doesn’t answer thoreau’s criticism. The question of the blogs’ roles follows the question of the newspaper’s original publication of rumors and hearsay.

    It’s not exactly fair to say that bloggers are complicit in “the spreading of rumors and hearsay” when they distributed a story that was interesting upon cursory examination, subjecting it in the process to critical examination, and then posted regular updates as the story fell apart before everyone’s eyes. It might be fair to gripe about, say, the late disclaimer posted here, but how long did it take Jesse Walker to post the first update with the late disclaimer? Maybe an hour or two, three tops. Not exactly the stuff great conspiracies are made of.

    If we’re going to talk about irresponsibility, let’s talk about 1) the newspaper’s initial publication of a poorly sourced story and 2) Ted Kennedy’s repetition in the Boston Globe after the story had been pretty damn thoroughly debunked.

  21. i gotta start using that preview button

  22. What if a blogger said “Hey, these documents that I saw on the news yesterday seem a little fishy, but I could be wrong….I’m linking to the CBS web page, where there are copies.”

    Would that blogger be irresponsible?

    That blogger would be a pajama-clad redneck chickenhawk working for Karl Rove, according to some of the people I associated with at the time.

  23. Not only has the sunlight definitively cleared up this tale, we also have a demonstration of just how attractive accusations of government overreach are on the opinion market. Would this legend have had any legs in 2002 or 1999? I consider that a double bonus benefit of the blogosphere as regards this nonstory.

    Herein lies another argument against those “fight fire with fire”-“break a few eggs”-“ends justify the means” types. Their abuses are making it harder and harder to actually genuinely protect the country because they are undermining the respectability, credibility, and flexibility of the real white hats out there.

  24. There were a lot of people at my ISP who said, “But even if it was a hoax, isn’t it scary that we live in the kind of country where we have to wonder if this is true or not?” which strikes me as fallacious yet true. I mean, consider this:
    1. I believe President Bush is an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet.
    2. I see a report from someone who says, “I saw President Bush tear off his human mask and swallow a guinea pig whole!”
    3. The report is subsequently debunked.
    4. I say, “OK, so it was false, but wasn’t it scary that it could have been true?”

    Obviously, whether I find allegations of guinea-pig-swallowing believable does not necessarily have anything to do with reality. Whether your beliefs are realistic is a whole different kettle of fish. (Sadly, in the DHS/LRB thing, they probably are, but…)

  25. An excellent point, JD.

  26. some co-worker JD qaouted:

    “But even if it was a hoax, isn’t it scary that we live in the kind of country where we have to wonder if this is true or not?”

    A sucker is born every minute….no matter where he ends up living.

    I won’t brag that I imediatly knew it was a lie when I heard about it becouse I didn’t, but I did ignore it and now I feel vindicated for that.

  27. So yes, it’s irresponsible to participate in the spreading of rumors and hearsay.

    Can someone show me a human who doesn’t participate in gossip?

  28. Its really hard to discredit a hoax without first recounting what the hoax is.

    Busting the blogosphere’s chops for ‘spreading’ a hoax, when big chunks of the ‘sphere are simultaneously questioning and undermining the hoax, is pretty dumb. Anyone who read the comments here at H&R would have picked up pretty quickly that this thing was probably not true.

  29. Can someone show me a human who doesn’t participate in gossip?

    A human who blogs all day and night or a normal person?

  30. Well, before we get too blogo-triumphant, it’s not like anyone seems to be following the supposed “zombie story writer suspended from school due to zero tolerance” story from awhile back. I had to wait for printed-paper journalists to point out that things weren’t quite as stated in that case.

  31. Can someone show me a human who doesn’t participate in gossip?

    A human who blogs all day and night or a normal person?

    Either. My point is that gossip comes naturally to humans. Now it happens here, on blogs and electronic communication. And with a much wider audience. But too many people make the mistake of thinking that this is any other than gossip. Luckily there are a good number of skeptics around who dig deeper into these rumors, and usually the truth comes out. But let’s remember, that until it’s confirmed a lot of this “news” is still just gossip.

  32. False stories like this are very damaging. The morning after I read this on Hit and Run, James Carville reported it on the Today show or Good Morning America. One of those. He was using it as a defense against Bush spying. I immediately cringed after he said it.

    It damages a person’s credibility to relay stories that are false. In this political clime of ad hominem attacks with little substance, being wrong about one thing therefore makes them wrong about everything.

  33. It damages a person’s credibility to relay stories that are false.

    If they do so uncritically, yes. Sounds fair to me.

  34. It damages a person’s credibility to relay stories that are false.

    Especially if the story being relayed, like this one, is inherently implausible.

    I mean, c’mon. Men in black hassled me after I asked for a book at the library? Sure, its a lefty McCarthy-nostalgia wet dream, but, c’mon.

  35. liberty4all,
    Are you saying we’ll never have to suffer James Carville again?

  36. The particular content of this hoax – overzealous goernment surveillance in support of national security – is exactly the sort of credulous story believed by the sort of paranoid, Patriot Act bashing libertarians who frequent this site.

  37. thoreau-

    So, while the reporter, with the resources of a newspaper, acted poorly, do bloggers really deserve criticism for passing it on?

    Yes!

    Oops!— my fault…

    Fuck yes!

    If a reporter (with the resources of a newspaper) declares that corn syrup is ‘evil personified’- with not one piece of _actual_ evidence to support the claim- should you be criticized for believing it, and furthermore, contributing to the ‘rumor mill’?

  38. declares that corn syrup is ‘evil personified’- with not one piece of _actual_ evidence to support the claim- should you be criticized for believing it, and furthermore, contributing to the ‘rumor mill’?

    I’d say that it doesn’t really matter what a particular blog contributor (be it a commenter or somebody on the main page) believes. What matters is that the story is tossed out there before a large, skeptical, and informed audience. The blogger can believe whatever bullshit he wants to believe, but if he offers it to a skeptical audience, it will be vetted.

    And if the story is shot down, we’ll probably learn something in the process.

    That’s what matters.

  39. The story about the Sinclair is not news. In Francis Russell’s book Tragedy At Dedham there are reports of similar disclosures from the defense.

  40. The story about the Sinclair is not news.

    The probability that at least one of the defendants was guilty in not news. The Sinclair letter is.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.