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.