Story About "Little Red Book" and Federal Agents a Hoax

This is important news:

The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.

But on Thursday, when the student told his tale in the office of UMass Dartmouth professor Dr. Robert Pontbriand to Dr. Williams, Dr. Pontbriand, university spokesman John Hoey and The Standard-Times, the student added new details.

The agents had returned, the student said, just last night. The two agents, the student, his parents and the student's uncle all signed confidentiality agreements, he claimed, to put an end to the matter.

But when Dr. Williams went to the student's home yesterday and relayed that part of the story to his parents, it was the first time they had heard it. The story began to unravel, and the student, faced with the truth, broke down and cried.

I don't know what the moral is, here. 1) He's an idiot. 2) Don't believe everything you read. 3) We live in such an invasive political climate that such stories are easily believable. 4) He's definitely an idiot.

Posted on December 24, 2005 at 8:53 AM • 31 Comments

Comments

aikimarkDecember 24, 2005 9:59 AM

"(WOL)F.B.I. !!!" he cried.

The little red book of lies and deceptions.

===============
I find it interesting that Karl Rove could orchestrate a smear campaign against John McCain in the 2000 SC primary race and the press doesn't jump all over it.
Result: PRESIDENT George Bush

A student's lie is revealed.
Result: almost 100 news articles about the stroy (lie) and the truth (lie revealed) published within 12 hours. This says as much about the sorry state of the press in this country as the (lying student) story itself. There's no telling what the talking heads are going to do with this one.

Saar DrimerDecember 24, 2005 10:54 AM

All your 4 points are true, no doubt. These days, can you think of anything you wouldn't think plausible?

Unfortunately, there is another potential outcome to this story... He's going to get a multi-million dollar book deal and a talk show. He'll become yet another undeserving, idiot celebrity... as if we don't have enough. Or maybe not.

another_bruceDecember 24, 2005 11:07 AM

"it is good that we are being attacked, for it means that we have successfully established a distinction between our attackers and ourselves."
mao zedong

jammitDecember 24, 2005 12:33 PM

"The Little Red Book", "Mein Kampf",and "Anarchists Cookbook" are pretty much required reading for any TLA. It seemed weird to me that out of the many "Little Red Books" that are checked out on a daily basis, he was singled out. I was thinking perhaps he had another "black spot" in his record that might raise suspicion. I guess even I was fooled by him.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 24, 2005 2:06 PM

Aha! Kudos to J.D. Abolins, whose earlier comment was right on the money:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/12/...

"I am trying to determine the accuracy of the article. It is so tempting to accept into the exhibits files of governmental incursions on civil liberties, especially after the recent reports about the NSA and the DOD. But the article actually has some weaknesses that give me concern."

FoxyshadisDecember 24, 2005 3:50 PM

Why anyone would bring third parties into such a grand lie is beyond me, let alone unsuspecting ones.

On the other hand, "FBI agents put the fear of Bush into me" is a much better excuse for a late term paper than "my computer crashed", so I'll give him that.

Larry SeltzerDecember 24, 2005 4:12 PM

He's 22 years old. So why is his name being held confidential? Let us know who he is so that we can know not to trust anything else he says.

Mike WDecember 24, 2005 6:15 PM

Supermarket club cards at Safeway, Albertsons, Ralphs, etc. track exactly what customers buy, at which store, which checkout, and exactly when. This is an enormous amount of information, which includes tracking a person's movement. As far as I see, these guys can trade this info with "affiliates". Credit card companies also have a bunch of longitude/latitude info on you they get to trade with "affiliates". Is it legal for the Feds to get access to this info? It seems like nobody will care until the Bush haters find a link between these data collectors and the Bush administration. Now *that* would be a story.

mdoneilDecember 24, 2005 7:38 PM

Supermarket club cards = big brother? Kid lies about Feds perusing ILL records and professors and media believe it even though the story has more holes than Emmentaler cheese.

I don't use supermarket club cards (I shop at Publix which does not offer them), but I don't care if the credit card people know where I am or if my cell phone can pinpoint my location. I'm comfortable with that. (In fact I like it last week Amex called because of a big charge at a store 1500 miles away from where I live. I made it when traveling, but I feel better knowing they keep alert to guard against crime.)

The kid made up a ridiculous story for a late paper and the professors believed it and passed it along to a journalist. That says volumes about both the professors and even more about the journalist. That the library community didn't immediatly denounce it as a lie, and in fact many of them wanted it to be true (http://college.lisnews.org/article.pl?sid=05/12/17/2037223) is what is most sad about the whole thing. Professors at a Mass University- sure, journalists-yep, but librarians we should be able to count on. They more than anyone should as Reagan said, "Trust but verify."

David GawDecember 24, 2005 8:26 PM

Perhaps also, 5) that being too quick to believe may lead us to conclude we're in a more invasive political climate than we actually are?

B-ConDecember 24, 2005 8:58 PM

"Perhaps also, 5) that being too quick to believe may lead us to conclude we're in a more invasive political climate than we actually are?"

Examine point 3. The interesting thing is not that we live in a less invasive society than we thought, but rather that we live in a society that has undergone events as to make this seem perfectly plausible.

This specific event did not occur, but we would be so accustomed to that type of event that we would accept it as not being outrageous if it did occur.

J.D. AbolinsDecember 24, 2005 9:40 PM

First, Davi Ottenheimer, thank you for the kudos. Glad to see somebody was reading the comments.

Second, I have to give the UMass Dartmouth professors a lot of credit for following up with the student and telling the Standard-Times about the confession. It could have been too easy for some to have hiden that confession because it fit with the domestic spying theme.

As for the student's motives in the hoax, I don't know. I keep wondering if it was a post-9/11 version of "the dog ate my homework". (The DHS ate my project?) Political mythmaking? Or a non-proxy form of Munchausen's syndrome, so to say?

Maybe tomorrow, I'll compile the various links, references, and comments on my blog. At least, I am relieved that there is some answer to the uneasiness with the original story.

ProhiasDecember 24, 2005 10:50 PM

Moral - how about that at 22, in a paranoid society, a student could make stupid accusations when he is not necessarily an idiot.

Full credit to the univ for handling this so well.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 24, 2005 11:56 PM

Well, here's an interesting precedent. Perhaps the student was just trying to follow by example:

http://www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=88

"Twenty years ago, according to James Moore, et al., the authors of Bush’s Brain, [Karl Rove] faked the wiretapping of his own office—a gesture that made his candidate appear the victim of dirty tricks from the other side."

And even when Rove is caught lying he seems able to come up with some pretty fancy evasive footwork:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/...

"Part of Rove's defense has been that he was very busy man who simply forgot to tell investigators about his conversation with Cooper."

I guess if he had studied under Rove, instead of some unwitting Professor, the student might never have been caught "red handed" (sorry, couldn't resist) and/or given up so easily.

AnonymousDecember 25, 2005 1:07 AM

"3) We live in such an invasive political climate that such stories are easily believable."

Otherwise intelligent people can be easily deceived by ridiculous stories as long as you pander to their pre-conceived notions. I thought there was a famous quote along these lines, but it escapes me at the moment.

Bruce CleaverDecember 25, 2005 10:09 AM

Anonymous -

"All I suggest is a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest"

Paul Simon & Art Garfunkle

Mike WDecember 25, 2005 12:28 PM

"How did Dr. Hwang manage to rise so quickly in the scientific firmament and convince so many leading experts that his work was sound?"

-- New York Times, Today, "Clone Scientist Relied on Peers and Korean Pride"

moeDecember 25, 2005 11:07 PM

Tin foil hat speculation:

Were you quick to believe the initial story, or quick to believe the follow-up story about it being a hoax?

Was it really a hoax? Or was that just a way to quiet the "situation".

RobertDecember 26, 2005 6:50 AM

The speed with which many believed this story I think has a lot more to do with the *perception* of being in a "politically invasive" society than it has to do with the actual, demonstrable fact of political invasiveness. We *believe* that we are in such a society and so everything that happens is interpreted through that lens. Whether we believe this because of actual facts or because of predispositions, nobody has examined.

I echo Glenn Reynolds' thought on this, that it's surprising that the story was so quickly an uncritically believed by those who are supposedly critical thinkers. Regardless of what the actual truth is about politics these days, we have an obligation to think critically about these stories before we just believe them because they are congruent with our political beliefs.

Jim HyslopDecember 26, 2005 12:16 PM

@saar: "He'll become yet another undeserving, idiot celebrity..."

Who's the real idiot: the celebrity, or those who make him into a celebrity?

cmDecember 26, 2005 8:32 PM

B-Con: It doesn't matter whether one finds this outrageous. The important point is that it is quite plausible.

In one of my local libraries they state in the T&C's something to the effect that records of who checks out what are only kept until the items are accepted as returned in proper condition, only for the purpose of this recordkeeping, and that the library will resist efforts to release this information to third parties. I don't know when this clause was put in.

B-ConDecember 27, 2005 5:04 AM

"B-Con: It doesn't matter whether one finds this outrageous. The important point is that it is quite plausible." -- cm

That was the context I was using the word "outrageous" in. As in, outrageously out of the normal.

Sorry, my Stats professor used that word a lot this last semester to describe conditions that were "outrageously abnormal" -- I guess it kind of hung on.

Yes, that was exactily what I meant. The very fact that this story was considered plausible is alarming in and of itself.

Assuming that it isn't true to begin with.

AlbatrossDecember 27, 2005 9:31 AM

They said the student who admitted the hoax was tearful - they didn't mention if he was bruised...

Am I paranoid enough to believe that he may not have made up the story, but may have been threatened with incarceration or retribution if he didn't retract the story...

No, I'm not QUITE that jaded... yet.

On the other hand, if it turned out to be the case, I wouldn't register a lot of surprise, either.

In Minnesota here we have a politically-active fellow named David Strom, president of the Taxpayer's League.
http://www.taxpayersleague.org/main/index.php

Last year I heard a news story about David Strom being attacked by a group of men, set afire, and his tongue cut out of his mouth. Despite opposing Mr. Strom's political views, I was upset and mortified, and actually contacted a local columnist to ascertain that Mr. Strom was in good health.

It turned out to be another man with the same name ...
http://www.fergusfallsjournal.com/articles/2005/...

...who as it turned out suffered from mental illness and inflicted his own injuries.

Still, what does it say about the world that it wasn't hard to believe the worst?

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