Since Donald Trump’s election night victory and at the direction of Hillary Clinton campaign operatives, social media users have been scolded and warned over the scourge of “fake news” from supposedly respected journalistic outlets, on the web and on network television. Clinton herself, just last week, even blamed her election loss partly on the dangerous spread of fake news.
So enter the curious case of Yasmin Seweid, the 18 year old New York City college student whose story of being harassed and assaulted by three Donald Trump supporters on a subway train went viral. This came on the heels of reports — many exaggerated — a so-called “surge” in Trump-fueled, hate-filled activity.
Protests were held at Grand Central station, where Seweid reported her assault to police shortly after saying she exited the train to get away from her attackers. Several mainstream news outlets, including CBS, NBC, Buzzfeed, Yahoo and Slate among others, picked up on the story and ran with it gleefully.
“Drunk Men Yelling ‘Donald Trump’ Attempt To Remove Woman’s Hijab On NYC Subway” declared the headline at Buzzfeed. “NY Subway Riders Stand By as Three Men Verbally Assault Muslim Teenager” was Slate’s headline, which Yahoo echoed with “Three Drunks on Train Harass Woman in Hijab, Commuters Do Nothing.” CBS News stated “Muslim teen verbally attacked on NYC subway”. Gothamist, a local NYC news site and one of the first outlets to pick up on the alleged incident, stated “Men Screaming ‘Donald Trump’ Attacked Woman Wearing Hijab On The Subway”. The New York Daily News featured the incident on its front page, professing “Attacked Because I’m Muslim” and she was interviewed by CBSNY local that night.
Seweid then posted a statement on her Facebook page (which has since been deleted) saying, “Three white racists ripped the straps off my bag & attempted to yank my hijab off my head. They yelled such disgusting slurs at me, I was so helpless and felt defenseless.” Seweid went on to blame other passengers on her subway: “It breaks my heart that so many individuals choose to be bystanders while watching me get harassed verbally and physically by these disgusting pigs. Trump America is real and I witnessed it first hand last night!”
To reputable news outlets, Yasmin Seweid, an attractive young Muslim girl, was a prime example of how hate in Donald Trump’s America has spread and manifested itself (even into progressively liberal enclaves such as New York City!)
The only problem is that the incident Seweid reported, and that these outlets ran with, didn’t happen. As reported by DNA Info, Seweid eventually confessed to fabricating the incident and lying to New York police investigating. There were troubles with her account from the start. NYC subway surveillance footage only showed one person matching a description Seweid gave following her off a train and she could not outright describe the suspects when pressed. Furthermore, Seweid went missing for two days last week and was finally found with a bag of clothes. The family’s only comment was that it was a personal matter they were handling.
Shortly after her return home, Seweid’s Facebook page, along with the post recalling the incident was deleted. Her Youtube and Twitter accounts remain live but dormant.
The larger issue at work here is not Seweid. She’s a teenager who, for reasons yet unknown, fabricated a hate crime and will now face real legal consequences for doing so. She may be confused, she may have trouble at home or socially. Nobody knows and that information will likely reveal itself in time as she is forced to face charges in court and opprobrium in her community, which she’s no doubt damaged and hurt by making real accounts of targeted religious hate and assaults harder to report.
But since Donald Trump’s election, social media users have been bombarded by a finger wagging media about a flood of fake news and misinformation spreading online which, the media claims. But the media isn’t taking a long hard look at themselves and asking how and why “fake news” has gained the audience it has. With little to no discretion and all too eager to push anti-Trump narratives, these news organizations hit the publish button on Seweid’s story with little to no hedging that, at that point, all they had was her account. And its faith in the story dies hard. When Buzzfeed published the story of Seweid’s arrest on Wednesday, the headline read “Woman Arrested For Allegedly Making Up Story of NY Subway Attack by Trump Supporters”, carrying more skepticism in the fact that she was arrested for fabricating the story, than Buzzfeed gave to its original report.
These editors, apparently not convinced that Donald Trump provides enough real life clickbait content, rushed off to prove their desired narrative of rampant Islamophobia and hate crimes. If newsroom editors want to lament the spread of fake news, perhaps they can start with how they and their journalists handled the Yasmin Seweid case. Likewise with rape victims in the viral media cases of Emma Sulkowicz, the University of Virginia Greek system or Duke Lacrosse, all this does is undermine their own narratives and most importantly real victims.
Maybe mainstream news outlets and networks will figure this out sometime into President Donald Trump’s second term.