In this age of viral shaming, anyone can fabricate an accusation about a company or individual, and if they play their cards right and their charges are particularly incendiary, they can watch their claim spread like wildfire. Servers writing offensive comments on a restaurant patron's bill, anonymous notes sent to people vilifying their lifestyle, and the latest-- accusations that Whole Foods decorated a cake with a slur-- have all blazed their way through social media, with our gut instinct tending toward outrage rather than scrutiny. Of course, plenty of offensive things DO happen in life, and the fact that there are hoaxes does not take away from the validity of real victims' claims. But my focus here, from a psychological standpoint, is why the hoaxers do what they do.
The latest example is still in flux, but I feel quite comfortable as of now putting it in the category of hoaxes. Whole Foods vehemently disputes the man's claims and has very solid evidence to back up their belief that he sought to defame them by adding the slur to the cake himself. (As someone who's done her time decorating dozens of birthday cakes, even I could tell right away by the man's original photo that something was highly dubious-- the slur was written in much thinner icing than the rest of the (nonoffensive) message that he had originally ordered.) In this case, his original post claimed discrimination; he is a pastor at an LGBTQ-friendly church and the slur is a highly offensive word that defames members of the LGBTQ community. Of course, that's not what discrimination actually is legally, so his lawyers have changed the lawsuit to now be about emotional distress. So, if he is indeed a hoaxer, faking victimhood, why would he go through the trouble to write the slur and create the hoax? The man had to procure blue icing! Why would a pastor put his reputation on the line? Why would he risk everything to vilify a company that presumably has not harmed him? (In fact, the actual Whole Foods cake decorator is apparently a member of the LGBTQ community, and Whole Foods is a more progressive company than many.) What could possibly be going on here?
Such hoaxes are certainly nothing new, though the speed and intensity with which the accusations can spread has certainly increased exponentially with social media. It is likely that the psychological motivations are as old as time, however. Here are some common ones:
Like people who fake an illness for themselves or their children, even to the point of making their child actually sick (as in the case of Munchausen by proxy), sympathy and compassion can be powerful motivators. Sometimes this comes from a place of the hoaxer feeling like they have already been subjected to umpteen injustices that have not been known, and they want someone to validate their pain, to see how much they hurt in a more tangible way. When other people care about our plights, we often feel better. Comfort from others can be a strong draw, and someone who feels in desperate need of comfort but just isn't getting it may resort to the extreme option: getting it through the false establishment of victimhood.
2) Furthering a cause
Many modern-day social media hoaxes appear to have the component of furthering a political, social, or human rights movement. This actually gives the hoaxer a little more power than with a typical accusation, because the hoaxer's audience may feel guilty being more scrutinizing if they are on the side of the movement. It is easy to be accused of being unsympathetic to the cause if you doubt the person making the claims, so people simply wanting due diligence to check out the claims may silence themselves, lest they be condemned by people whose beliefs they agree with in the first place! Moreover, a hoaxer may validate their false claims as a "means to an end" to further the cause, viewing their own lies as a wrong that leads to a right. They may think of themselves as part of a battle in which they need to fight through any means necessary, collateral damage-- and the truth-- be darned.
3) Attention and "Heroism"
Just the attention itself-- even if it doesn't always include sympathy-- can be a very powerful reinforcer. Seeing your name trending on Twitter or watching thousands of facebook shares of your claim (even with some negative comments) is something that many people will, if they're honest, admit to wanting for themselves. A person who seems to have been subjected to a particularly outrageous injustice can get bands of people behind them and become something of a folk hero. Going from an unknown to a nationally-known freedom fighter overnight is heady stuff.
4) External rewards
A common accusation about hoaxers is that they just want to "get rich." It's not always a clear-cut path from victim to riches, however. But certainly the possibility of damages in a lawsuit can be a motivator for many, especially if they are taking on a large corporation. People making accusations about individuals may be motivated by their belief that their narrative will somehow turn them into something of a spokesperson for a certain movement, perhaps getting them a job with a certain cause or even a motivational speaking career. Money is a much more clear-cut motivator for lying than the other more psychological factors discussed, and in fact it is a common motivator for all kinds of non-hoax dishonesty (lying on taxes, for example) as well.
Sometimes, a person may have a particular beef with an individual or a corporation and they justify this as a way to get what they deserve. "I'll make you pay!" may be their guiding principle, whether they are out to smear someone's name, damage a company's reputation, or even win a lawsuit. Perhaps the person felt that there were previous injustices by this entity that went unpunished, and now they want blood. They may even justify their lies, in their own minds, because of the previous experiences that they feel were never made right.
6) Emotional Dysfunction
Some hoaxers are chronic manipulators or liars, and their hoaxes represent patterns of escalating behavior, rather than isolated events. They may be out of touch with reality enough that they truly start to believe the circumstances of their victimhood, or they might be suffering from a personality disorder strong enough to make their pathological lying get more and more grandiose. Individuals who create entire personas on the Internet and develop sympathy-inducing narratives-- playing the long con-- often have significant emotional problems. In general, the more outrageous the hoax, the more you can bet that the motivations represent some pretty unhealthy psychological traits. And it's likely that anyone willing to cross the threshold of creating a completely false claim in the first place likely has some psychological challenges that could use a bit of help.
Have you ever been the victim of a hoax? Have you ever perpetrated one? What other factors do you think might be at play? Tell me in the comments below!
For more of Dr. Bonior's writings on social media and behavior:
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and an upcoming book about the psychology of everyday life (stay tuned!), and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than eleven years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator about mental health issues. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter!
Photo credit: Alexa LaSpisa (Flickr Creative Commons)