The New York Police Department on Wednesday charged a Muslim teenager whose story about being harassed on the subway by a group of Donald Trump supporters had gone viral with filing a false report. The backlash was swift.
“#FakeNews: Media Hyperventilates Over Another Anti-Muslim Hate Crime Hoax,” read one headline on NewsBusters that claimed these kinds of stories “are nearly always proved to be hoaxes.”
Other websites and conservative commentators also targeted the media for spreading 18-year-old Yasmin Seweid’s account of three white men calling her a “terrorist” and trying to pull off her hijab on a 6 train as other riders stood by.
“Muslim Teen Arrested After Media Hyped Her Fake Anti-Trump ‘Hate Crime Hoax’ Story,” was the headline at Biz Pac Review, while Heat Street published a piece titled “What Yasmin Seweid’s Pretty Little Lies Reveal About ‘Fake News’ Media Hypocrisy.” Anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller patted herself on the back for predicting that the story was made up all along.
Police sources told the New York Daily News that Seweid, a student at Baruch College, invented the story because she feared getting in trouble with her conservative Egyptian parents for breaking curfew after staying out drinking with friends. After police found no corroborating evidence or witnesses, Seweid admitted that she made the story up, according to the report.
Yet hate crimes experts say Seweid’s fabrication is the exception, not the rule. Such rare “hoax” crimes bely the real rise of hate crimes in the United States, bolstering the narratives of those who believe Islamopohobia is an overblown issue or that bias crimes are the stuff of liberal fantasy.
According to FBI statistics released in November, 2015 was the worst year for anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001, when the terror attacks on the World Trade Center fueled a surge of Islamophobic incidents. Those crimes continued into this election year. The NYPD reported 375 hate crime complaints to date in 2016, compared to 282 incidents in 2015; the number of anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2016 rose to 33, up from 19 reports in 2015.
NYPD hate crime statistics year-to-date as of Dec. 11
Yet even the hard numbers are fodder for disputing the rise in hate crimes in the U.S.
“I’m a criminologist and people have accused my reports of being biased when I’m using official law enforcement criteria or actual law enforcement data,” Brian Levin, the director for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, told TPM in a Thursday interview. “There’s something politically going on now that is different. These hoaxes have become symbols for some who want to promote the idea that most hate crimes are hoaxes. That’s important to rectify.”
According to Levin, hoaxes do crop up in hate crime reporting, as they do across the spectrum of criminal offenses. But he said they are a “tiny fraction” of the hundreds of hate crimes reported annually.
“As criminologists we see hoax fires, hoax domestic violence accusations, hoax car thefts, and the overwhelming majority of those offenses really are being committed, too,” he said. “Those of us who are in the information analysis business want to make sure we root out those false positives, but the bottom line is that our research in this field shows a significant rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes.”
As with those other offenses, there is a range of reasons why people like Seweid may be motivated to falsely report a crime. Hate crime experts list a desire for attention, elevation of status, diversion, political agenda, insurance fraud and mental instability as some of the most common motivating factors.
Yet those experts they say there is a reason why stories like Seweid’s resonate so deeply: the spate of legitimate bias crimes and attacks we’ve seen on the news and read about for months, many of which were caught on camera.
Nathan Lean, the former director of research for the Islamophobia project at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, posited that Seweid used this particular excuse for coming home late because she knew the story would be “believable.”
“The reason this girl made up this story is because of the real possibility of her experiencing a scenario like this,” he said pointing to the “visibility” of Muslim women who wear hijabs.
“That doesn’t legitimate what she did,” he continued. “But if we were living in a climate where anti-Muslim sentiment wasn’t so intense and there hadn’t been a spike in hate crimes, her story would not have been received with the same credibility.”
The biggest danger of hoaxes like Seweid’s, experts say, is that they diminish the very real bias that people experience every day. For Trump supporters who were accused of racism and xenophobia during the campaign, false reports like Seweid’s serve as confirmation that hate crime incidents don’t happen with the frequency they do. False reports give them ammo to claim Islamophobia, like “fake news,” is a charge unfairly drummed up by political opponents.
“We don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of making people feel horrible for being born Muslim or middle eastern,” Toni Bisconti, a psychology professor at the University of Akron who studies hate crimes, said. “So if we have one or two situations in which their reports aren’t true, we can just let ourselves off. We don’t have to feel guilty. We can say, ‘Look they’re making huge deals out of everything, we don’t need to feel responsible.’”
“It’s like the plane that crashes and everyone is scared of flying but is still driving while drinking,” she added. “That situation doesn’t make flying unsafe but it’s so big and has such a big impact. If we think Middle Easterners are somehow suspect, this just proves it.”