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When people make up victim stories

A couple of victim stories came up recently: in both cases these were people I’d never heard of until (a) they claimed to have been victimized, and (b) it seems that these claims were made up.

First case was Jussie Smollett, a cable-TV actor who claimed to be the victim of a racist homophobic attack, which seems to have never happened.

Next case was Jacob Wohl, a political operator of some sort who claimed to have received online death threats, but then it seems these threats came from accounts that he created.

So it seems that Smollett may have hired people to mug him, and Wohl may have sent death threats to himself.

These two cases reminded me of the much more obscure story from several years ago of Mary Rosh, a fictional online character created with presumed intent to deceive (that is, a “sock puppet”) by researcher and policy advocate John Lott. In Rosh’s (that is, Lott’s) words, “I have to say that he [Lott] was the best professor I ever had.” When questioned about this action, Lott wrote that, “it was a way to get information into the debate.” In this case, the information that Lott thinks that he’s a really really good teacher, which happens to be something he could’ve introduced into the debate directly, under his own name.

And this in turn reminds me of when cartoonist Scott Adams posted, under an assumed name, the paradoxical statement, “You’re talking about Scott Adams. He’s not talking about you.” Adams also apparently used his fake online persona to write, “I hate Adams for his success too.” Which may be true: I would not be surprised if Adams, like some other successful people, has mixed feelings about his success.

Rosh and Adams used fake identities to affect conversations about themselves; Wohl and Smollett faked their victimhood; but I don’t see these actions as so different. It’s just that being a victim is more of a “thing” now than it was a few years ago.

Anyway, I have a theory about all these cases, and other similar examples, which is that when people lie or misrepresent like this, they’re doing this out of the belief that they’re representing a larger truth. Even if Smollett did not receive these particular slurs at that particular time, he’s felt slighted on other occasions. Even if Wohl did not get those death threats, people have spoken harshly to him online at other times. Basically, Smollett and Wohl feel like oppressed victims, so to them it’s barely a lie at all if they make up these particular cases. Just as fiction can feel more true than the truth, Smollett and Wohl could well feel that these faked incidents capture the essence of what’s happening to them. And then, when the fakes get revealed, they can feel victimized again by all the people who are questioning them.

Similarly with Rosh and Adams: Rosh probably does think she’s a great teacher—indeed maybe some students in her real-life classes gave her some positive feedback on their teaching. And of course Adams is right that people talk about him when he’s not in the room. So, again, they were lying in the service of a larger truth. At least that’s how I conjecture they see it.

At this point, you might ask: If these people feel like they’re serving the larger truth, why not just tell that truth? Why does Smollett not just recount real examples of when he’s been hassled, why does not Wohl share real internet beef he’s received, why did not Rosh ask a real student to testify to her teaching prowess, why did not Adams . . . ummm, I’m not actually sure what point Adams was trying to make in that particular discussion, so I’ll skip on that one.

Anyway, I conjecture that the reason these people don’t just recount true stories is that the truth isn’t good enough. Maybe Smollett received some rude stares but no in-your-face slurs, maybe Wohl received some angry emails but no threats, maybe Rosh didn’t actually have any former students at hand to argue in her favor.

As we say in statistics, if the data don’t make your case, impute from the model!

P.S. Why write about these sad stories at all? I’m interested for two reasons. First, as noted above, questions of truth and lies relate to more general concerns about learning from data and the scientific process, as discussed in my papers with Basbøll here (To throw away data: Plagiarism as a statistical crime) and here (When do stories work? Evidence and illustration in the social sciences).

Second, similar issues of trust can arise in scientific disputes, in which pseudo-evidence is used to support a claim that’s been questioned. Sometimes this can involve out-and-out misrepresentation; other times it’s what is sometimes charitably called questionable research practices, perhaps most notoriously Daryl Bem counting, as a successful replication of his 2011 ESP paper, a study on spider stimuli from 2005. The issue here is not lying; the concern is that vaguely relevant pieces of information are being treated as evidence. Again I suspect the belief is that this is all in support of a larger truth so the details don’t matter, also the people doing this sort of thing may feel beleaguered by criticism, which can make almost any tactic seem reasonable in response. So I think it’s worth thinking about how it is that people justify various behaviors involving constructing, selecting, or misrepresenting evidence.

36 Comments

  1. Thanatos Savehn says:

    I see it as reifying the narratives to which they’ve committed themselves- which also has the whiff of statistics about it.

  2. Origins of imputation in animals of higher intelligence and its function.

  3. Wouldn’t these examples constitute ‘outliers’? I tend not to discount people’s experiences as much as the extent to which bad experiences can distort relationships thereafter. Processing these experiences don’t necessarily result in making peace with experiences or learn how to deal with them in a helpful way.

  4. steven t johnson says:

    The classic example of victim stories is alien abduction. If this is regarded as a religious experience, that story is then a myth, a kind of higher truth. But, the default hypothesis to check against is that it was just a bid for attention. The people who make up stories about famous crimes or about combat fit into this category too, don’t they? And there’s the opposite, the people who make false confessions. The thing about that is, I’m not sure it wouldn’t be the same psychological mechanism, with a different outcome according to individual differences. The false confession is a higher truth about their guilt, rather than their suffering, but would that be a significant difference, at least in terms of causal process?

    The Chicago PD, which once operated a kind of torture chamber, claims Smollett’s motive was money but it is entirely unclear how a racist attack was supposed to get him more money from Fox (which by the way is not a cable network.) In addition to the confusion of issues (racism vs. homophobia—most of the solidarity with Smollett that I saw was predicated on antiracism,) the chances that the charges against Smollett were dropped despite a supposedly open and shut case because Smollett was such a powerful man are pretty low. Plea bargains are both about convictions without an expensive trial and about salvaging something from a weak case that could easily fail in court.

  5. Terry says:

    Careful, careful. You are right on the brink of crimethink.

  6. pwyll says:

    If anyone’s interested in more datapoints, this is an attempt to comprehensively document hate crime hoaxes: http://www.fakehatecrimes.org/

  7. Roger says:

    There is a big difference between making a false police report, and merely posting an online opinion under an invented pseudonym. Many people see nothing wrong with the latter. Sure, the pseudonym hides some possible motives for the opinion, but that could be said for a lot of opinions.

  8. Wonks Anonymous says:

    I remember when Lee Siegel/Sprezzatura was a common example online of this. My favorite contemporary example of a fake identity is Brian Nosek writing humorous papers under the name “Arina K. Bones”.

    • Andrew says:

      Wonks:

      There are lots of possibilities for a pseudonym or online handle:
      – Anonymous (for example, “Wonks Anonymous”)
      – Open (“Arina K. Bones”)
      – Fake with intent to deceive (“Mary Rosh”).
      The last of these is what I was talking about above, where the fake identity is used to mislead people.

  9. I swear that the culture of emotional blackmail [learned in families & ‘friends’] is one of the root causes of so much drama. Moral confusion is the norm.

  10. Andrew [not Gelman] says:

    I think you are mixing up Rosh and Lott in this post. Rosh (female) is the fake persona, and Lott (male) is the real one.

    So, for example, your phrase “Similarly with Rosh and Adams, Rosh probably does think she’s . . . ” should be “Similarly with Lott and Adams, Lott probably does think he’s . . .”

  11. Martha (Smith) says:

    I’d just chalk it up to the old phrase, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

  12. Bruce McCullough says:

    I can’t figure out what larger truth was Hillary representing when she made this claim (of course there was no sniper fire).

    “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

    –Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, March 17, 2008

    video of her walking calmly on the tarmac here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/world/hillary-clinton-in-bosnia/2015/11/12/46f509fe-89a5-11e5-bd91-d385b244482f_video.html

    • Andrew says:

      Bruce:

      I’m not saying that when people make things up, that they always see it as part of a larger truth. Sometimes they lie for purely instrumental reasons, for example to make themselves look better.

      • Celebrity culture is a lot about creating drama & story. And it looks as if some extent of ‘making things up’ is accepted in that culture. After all, celebrities don’t write their own script, if you get what I mean. That is an issuance of the public relations makeover industry, which is paid to revamp celebrity personas. I think audiences are kinda sick of that. Rather they seem to prefer authenticity even if it is brash & in your face.

  13. Terry says:

    The Jussie Smollett hoax is a good benchmark to see how susceptible you are to attractive but fairly obvious nonsense. I totally fell for the Trayvon Martin hoax, and I fell for the Michael Brown hoax for a while, but I found the Jussie Smollett hoax to be unbelievable from the get go.

    • As one academic recounted to me, back in the early 2000s everyone has jumped into a film script. I had gone back to Harvard to hear Ash Carter and others at the Belfer Center. The academic was joking with me that the main character had been dropped off at a Hill station in the Hindu Kush to chill out till then last act. I would mention the academic’s name but that will have to wait for a memoir. lol

    • Terry says:

      I remember Reagan doing roughly the same thing. He told a moving story about a bomber pilot who stayed to comfort a wounded comrade as their plane crashed. Both airmen died … so who passed the story along? Totally bogus, but very touching.

  14. Jake says:

    This is the same Jacob Wohl who at age 18 was banned for life by the National Futures Association.

  15. Bill Jefferys says:

    Went to your link:

    https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2011/04/16/dilbert_update/

    Tried both links mentioning Chen, neither of them works any more. Gawker seems to have shut down, and the cartoon link leads to an error message.

  16. Peter Gerdes says:

    Maybe I’m unaware of something but both the motives and the effects seem to make the Scott Adams case seem deeply disanalogous with all the others. All the other cases seem to have the common thread of trying to gain some kind of social status by fabricating evidence. In one case that’s evidence of an attack, in another case it’s the fact that a former student found him to be an excellent teacher, and in yet another it’s evidence of being threatened with death (for obvious reasons threats made against yourself don’t fall into same category). The Scott Adams case doesn’t, at least based on what I’ve seen here, seem to reflect anything but a desire to carry on the discussion without being weighed down by his identity as Scott Adams.

    In all three other cases once the truth is revealed one immediately discredits the claims they were used to support since the falsehoods are being relied on as evidence of some kind. Revealing this individual as Scott Adams doesn’t seem (at least from what is mentioned here) to undermine any particular claim Adams is trying to advance. The bit about you’re thinking of Scott Adams but he’s not thinking of you becomes wonderfully funny (something too irresistible not to say if one was Adams under a pseudonym) but is ultimately just a kind of insult and posturing not an attempt to establish some false fact in a socially relevant way. Finding out that Scott Adams was thinking about this critic is about as relevant (and only slightly more surprising) as finding out the person who says ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is hurt by words.

    Having said this, I have no desire to defend Adams generally and for all I know he has engaged in behavior akin to the first three on other occasions but to the extent we are concerned about this for the purposes of understanding evidence and deceit I think this is a very big difference.

    Relating it back to the question of science it seems to me that it’s a very different kind of thing to disguise your name (e.g. name change, or not appearing as an author) with the intent of representing your results as having being independently replicated or supported than to disguise your name simply to publish in another field without taint from the association with a controversial figure. For instance, if famous/infamous legal scholar John Yoo had a mid (late) life crisis and decided to take up experimental work in the social scientists I think it would beneficial and appropriate for him to somehow publish under a different name (even if there is no formal mechanism for him to do this).

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