“Crying Wolf”: Revisiting a Classic Analysis of the Media Hoax Phenomenon

In 1994 independent researcher Laird Wilcox published Crying Wolf: Hate Crime Hoaxes in America, an especially prescient and helpful study on “racist and anti-semitic hoaxes” that today more than ever deserves the concerted attention of citizens and civic leaders alike.

At present the US divide over race and gender-based issues is being exacerbated by certain well-financed groups with much broader political objectives. The grievances are used as rationale to justify a variety of activities that just a few months ago would have seemed a bit beyond-the-pale–wide-scale looting and vandalism, civil insurrection, and the abrupt termination of people’s livelihoods simply because of an errant social media post or email.

For over 50 years Wilcox has studied “political fringe groups” on the left and right. The extent of this research culminated in his founding Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements, housed the University of Kansas, Wilcox’s alma mater.

Wilcox’s fundamental argument is that race and ethnic-based hoaxes are typically employed by extremist groups to project victim status that in turn furthers a certain political project. “There are three main reasons,” according to Wilcox.

The first has to do with the personal payoff for victimization, i.e., attention, sympathy, a sense of importance, feeding persecution fantasies, and material payoffs. The second has to do with advancing a political or social agenda, as in the case of hoaxes intending to create support for regulations or legislation, or to help create a climate sympathetic to specific interest groups. The third has to do with insurance fraud, with the racial or anti-Semitic element almost an afterthought. Most hoaxes are combinations of the first two types [emphases added].

If “social activists” can be contracted to commit arson and vault bricks through store windows, as news reports of recent rioting suggest, there’s nothing preventing them from also being hired to spray bigoted, “white supremacist” graffiti in public spaces.

Most importantly, not only do hoaxes create an environment where entire political agendas, legislative programs, and even history itself are predicated on lies and falsehood, they also create the basis for “boy cries wolf” scenarios, where true hate crimes and their victims are dismissed out-of-hand or not treated with the seriousness they in fact deserve.

The following is an excerpt from Crying Wolf‘s initial pages. The entire book is available at the link below.

Foreword to 1994 Edition

This book grew out of a research project I began in 1988 when the issue of racist and anti-Semitic hoaxes first came to my attention in a serious way. I had learned in talking with a former associate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s that a cross-burning I had always assumed was done by white racists was, in fact, done by civil rights workers. This aroused my curiosity, and more extensive probing convinced me that it may not be an uncommon occurrence.
Laird Wilcox. Image Source: Wikipedia

I quickly discovered that there were almost no sources of information on the subject of racist and anti-Semitic hoaxes. Rightwing groups, whom one might suspect would keep tabs on this, were rendered almost useless by their conspiratorial approach to the subject. The various black and Jewish groups were reluctant to discuss the issue. It was evidently a subject that had to be researched from scratch.

In 1989 I established the “Hoaxer Project” to bring together information on the subject. I managed to collect a number of newspaper clippings and in 1990 published a small report entitled The Hoaxer Project Report. Altogether some 5,500 copies of that report were circulated. A few readers began sending me clippings of hoaxes that actually made the newspapers as well as their own accounts of incidents they knew or suspected were hoaxes.

In time this added up to some 300 documented incidents from which the cases described in this book were drawn. I did not have the resources of a clipping service or a large network of “monitors” to assist me. If I had, this compilation might be many times as large.

Obviously, hoaxers are people who have exercised pretty bad judgment. Their acts may have been hurtful to others and they have usually violated various laws. Nevertheless I think it’s important to avoid the concept of “good guys” and “bad guys” when considering this issue. What we seem to have instead are those who are simply responding to an opportunity.

Whenever an abstract ideal acquires the moral urgency that racial equality or opposition to “bigotry” has today, it’s only a matter of time until we find individuals for whom the noble end justifies the questionable means. The militant, moralizing fanatic — quick to compromise important principles in order to enjoy the flush of righteousness — is the stumbling block which any reasonable resolution of racial/ethnic problems must overcome.

Further, in my experience, this uncompromising behavior is often a way of compensating for a hidden inner ambivalence. The social psychologist Harold D. Lasswell has written that “dogma is a defensive reaction in the mind of the theorist, but doubt of which he is unaware.”

This unconscious ambivalence appears to explain the willingness of many so-called “anti-racists” to justify and practice a kind of reverse racism or “counter-bigotry.” This manifests itself in the “good” discrimination of affirmative action and race-preferential policies, as well as in rationalizing prejudicial and stereotyping statements about white people.

Twenty years ago one couldn’t have said this, but today discrimination in schools, housing, jobs and government is minimal. Institutional racism is virtually gone. In its place, a series of preferential policies are firmly established.

In recent years “anti-racists” have proclaimed that virtually every behavior and institution in our society is covertly racist. Anti-racism has become a small industry in the United States. Entire career fields are built around defining and combatting “racism” in one form or another. As individual problems are solved and offensive behaviors disappear, the definition of racism is broadened again and again to include more and more behaviors, hence we have the problem of “increasing” bigotry and intolerance. I suspect the last thing many professional anti-racists want is a truly race-neutral society. They have developed a vested interest in the continuation of the problem, a kind of “co-dependency” relationship, if you will.

It’s no great surprise that a bright, socially-conscious individual would realize quite on his or her own that there’s nothing like some racist graffiti or some other “hate crime” to invigorate the militants, and what the hell, it’s for a good cause – right? Americans are not known for their ability to defer gratification for long. Hence, the racist or anti-Semitic hoax. It’s as easy as apple pie.

Consider a college campus boiling with racial and gender sensitivity, with courses in victimization, organizations for victims, a constant barrage of victimization propaganda — but no immediate and palpable victims. “Anti-racist” vigilantes with no racists (or misogynists and homophobes) to hang had better get busy and make some, and as we see, they often do.

What I see happening with hoaxes is a kind of “market” process: the frequency of hoaxes increases with their utility in accomplishing desired ends. When the “market” or payoff for victimization goes up, the temptation to create victimization where none exists is very strong and the temptation of exaggerate minor cases of alleged victimization is even stronger.

Conversely, as the number of hoaxes increases (assuming they are reported) a greater skepticism toward unproven and marginal victimization claims will probably increase as well, and hoaxes will become less effective. It’s pretty much a matter of supply and demand.

Concerning the text, it’s important to realize that in some cases there may have been further developments in some of the incidents I have covered. If a particular case is important to you, I advise that you attempt to determine its current status. Also, for the most part I relied on journalistic accounts for my information. While I believe that these are generally reliable, one has to be realistic and concede that they are hardly infallible. I have footnoted as many sources as I could find. It is up to the readers to judge their reliability.

Finally, this publication is a continuing project. It is anticipated that future editions will appear. I would like to recruit you to help overcome the disadvantage I have in compiling information on hoaxes. If you see newspaper coverage or other information about a hoax in your community, please send it to me.

Laird Wilcox

Download PDF of Crying Wolf.

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