OK, So the Vengeful Tattoo Artist Story Is A Web Hoax. It’s Still A Great Ethics Topic.

This comment was received on the post about the tattoo artist who tricked his cheating girlfriend into letting him draw a steaming pile of manure on her back:

"Never mind!" Wait, Emily---not so fast!

“You are all dumb. This is fake and I called it fake the first time I saw it. And guess what? The Smoking Gun did a little research and concluded that it is also fake. There appears to be no such person with the “victim’s” name in existence and nobody with the guy’s name. Further, the photo of the girl with the tattoo was first found as a submission on a blog about 18 months ago for “worst tattoo of the day”. And, further, they contacted the court in the jurisdiction where this allegedly happened and there has not been and is not any lawsuit filed with the names of either person nor about a tattoo like this. In other words, the story was made up on a website to generate hits and google ad generation (they’ve done this type of thing before).

Sort of makes all the arguments up above pointless.”

Since whoever this charming individual is didn’t include a name or a valid website, I deleted his comment, and since he had to be obnoxious while delivering this information, I’m not thanking him. But he was right, and his information was correct: the story is probably a hoax. The Smoking Gun did some digging, and exposes the deception here.

The commenter is also wrong, in several ways. Nobody is dumb. Web hoaxes are despicable and hard to catch, and especially hard for a site like Ethics Alarms to catch, a one-man, unfunded operation that is not a news source. I’m glad the commenter is puffed up with pride because he wasn’t fooled; the fact is, somebody somewhere refuses to believe every story, from moon landings to Elvis’s death. Sometimes they are right. I’m not impressed.

Mostly, however, he is wrong about the arguments generated by the story being pointless. In fact, they are exactly as valid, provocative and interesting as if the story were completely true. As an ethicist, I often deal in hypothetical, which are ethics problems in the form of stories designed to raise ethics dilemmas and provoke discussion. On Ethics Alarms I look for real events and stories that serve the same purpose, but in either case, what matters is the analysis and provoking a good discussion. The story, if false, was a terrific ethics hypothetical, allowing us to consider the balancing of betrayal and revenge, the human enjoyment of wrong-doers getting punished, even excessively, and legal issues as well.  I will  never present a false story as true here, but one of the benefits of this blog’s mission is that a hoax can spark just as rich an ethics debate as a true story. I’m sorry that I played a part in circulating a fake tale as true, and I apologize for misleading my readers. Still the commentary generated a good and valid ethics discussion.

I’m not sorry for that at all.

 

10 thoughts on “OK, So the Vengeful Tattoo Artist Story Is A Web Hoax. It’s Still A Great Ethics Topic.

  1. Don’t feel bad, Jack. This morning (Tu, 11/29) the story was carried on a talk radio morning-drive show as a real event. There are two guys on the air, a producer or 2, and a call screener; none of whom saw the hoax either. Since I had seen it here first, the most interesting aspect was how they worked around describing the tattoo without bringing on the wrath of the FCC.

  2. Jack: “As an ethicist, I often deal in hypothetical, which are ethics problems in the form of stories designed to raise ethics dilemmas and provoke discussion. On Ethics Alarms I look for real events and stories that serve the same purpose, but in either case, what matters is the analysis and provoking a good discussion. ”

    You’ve often bemoaned the dearth of ethics in journalism. It’s a fine idea to use actual events to provoke discussion about ethical issues, but how useful is it when the facts upon which you need to base your analysis are inaccurate, missing, or not even facts at all? Can’t you end up with inaccurate conclusions as a result of unethical journalism, and can’t people end up getting hurt or maligned unjustly, first by the bad reporting, and then by being deemed by you to have behaved unethically? Maybe the use of hypothetical would be less exciting, but more ethical.

    • Hi Jack,

      Contrary to Mike, I think you should feel bad. Especially from an Ethical point of view. And I will tell you why (without being obnoxious, since the goal is to discuss).

      You are a ethic specialist, you should have a better Critical Thinking reflexes. The scam was “kind of obvious”:
      1- What was the initial source source the news? A website called: “http://www.veryweirdnews.com”. Hum, hum…
      2- A tattoo of this size would have to be made in several time; at least 3 seances of 3 hours. (ok, I agree that this one is not that obvious is you ignore everything from tattoo).

      I agree that it was a good opportunity to talk Ethics, but I really don’t like the ways by which you justify your mistake. I ring the Ethic Alarm:
      – You use appeal to ridicule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_ridicule) and basically preach that it’s normal to be fooled by scams, since the people that are not are the same that think that Elvis is still alive…
      Internet scam ARE easy to spot, just look at the source of the news and have a look to http://www.snopes.com if you have a doubt.
      – You say “a hoax can spark just as rich an ethics debate as a true story”. I disagree. Hoax are made to manipulate people, you shouldn’t use them to discuss about Ethics UNLESS you denounce themselves as an hoax first. It is dangerous to accept that the end may justify the mean.

      To finish, Margie said: “Maybe the use of hypothetical would be less exciting, but more ethical.”.
      I think it will be less Ethical (in addition to be boring).

      If you just try, you DON’T need hypothetical story to do Ethics (which I see as an applied “science”). Reality is always worth than fiction. Have a look at that:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_throwing.
      Those woman are really living a drama.

      Best regards,
      Please pardon my mistakes of English: I’m not a native speaker.

      Mejdi.

      PS: This blog is the only internet page I saw (newspaper included) acknowledging and writing about having being scammed by the Tattoo story. This is a proof that their is Ethic here, and this is why I took the time to write this message.

      • Thanks for the comment, and these are interesting ideas. I think you are straining for points, however.

        1) Weird news sites are as reliable as any news sites, in my experience. Usually weird news relies heavily on the AP, like almost everyone else.I linked to that source; there were others.
        2) I don’t see how an ethics expert is expected to be more sensitive to a possible hoax in a tattoo story than the thousands of other blogs and sources that believed the story. Now, if I were a tattoo expert, you might have a point.
        3) The point about the time it would take to do such a large tattoo is indeed a good clue for skepticism, but I didn’t think of it, and nobody I read about it did either.
        4) There is no “appeal to ridicule”—I was making a very clear and true point that skepticism is no proof of special wisdom, and that since there will be someone who is skeptical of every news story, the fact that someone (who may or may not really have have been fooled by a web hoax) comes forward after the truth is out is not remarkable or a badge of honor. I am the only one I have heard of who seriously predicted that the Boston Red Sox would win the ALCS series in 2004 after being down 0-3 to the New York Yankees. I was lucky. This time, I wasn’t.
        5) “You say “a hoax can spark just as rich an ethics debate as a true story”. I disagree. Hoax are made to manipulate people, you shouldn’t use them to discuss about Ethics UNLESS you denounce themselves as an hoax first. It is dangerous to accept that the end may justify the mean.” Utter, utter nonsense, twisted logic and a bait and switch. I can use anything I want for an ethics debate, as long as I (not someone else) am not intentionally deceiving or misleading anyone. I didn’t set up a hoax to spark a debate; that would be an “ends justifies the means” offense, but its irrelevant. Nor did I excuse the hoax—my opinions on web hoaxes are a matter of record…in fact, over-zealously condemning one of them precipitated my worst mistake since I started the blog. Who made the rule that says I have to make a fresh condemnation of each hoax before I can use it as a hypothetical? It isn’t even a sensible rule. A good hypo for debate is a good hypo, period. The principles raised by a made up story and a true one with the same issues are identical.
        6) “If you just try, you DON’T need hypothetical story to do Ethics”—Gee, tell me about it. That is the whole reason for this blog and what I do every single day of the year. Your level of presumptuousness to lecture me, of all people, about how real stories raise ethical issues is mind-blowing, and more than a little obnoxious, frankly.
        7) Your English is fine, and I appreciate you taking the time to communicate in my language.
        8.)Your analysis needs some work, though.

  3. Dear Jack,
    Sorry for the delay in answering. I had to resubscribe my VPN (Internet is still censored in China…)

    1/ About the Source of information:
    For this very case, http://www.veryweirdnews.com WAS the initial source. All the articles (English and French) were ultimately linking to it. On their website there was no Author name, nor more “reliable” source quoted (no AP, nothing).
    I’m not saying that it meant it was necessarily an hoax, but it should have alert you.
    Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that Ethics and Critical Thinking were close. (-_-)’
    BTW: I found the article that proved the hoax while googeling to find the transcript of an Ohio court law about this case…

    2+3+4/ About the “I wasn’t the only one”:
    I don’t blame you that much for having been fooled. It happens. Look all those falks that believe that the US walked on the moon… XD
    But I do blame you for not feeling bad about it, for not saying: I’ll be more careful next time. Instead you make up bad excuses: Luck is not involve, just facts. Tthis hoax wasn’t a unplayed “ALCS” game…
    You’re an opinion leader; you write an interesting blog. We (or at least I) expect more from you (both on the Critical Thinking and on the mea culpa).
    The fact that you didn’t read about the Tattouing-time on Internet, just makes me a VERY SMART GUY (or that internet is desperately never willing to dig into its errors). Please consider what I’m saying, even though I now I may song arrogant/rude in English (FOR NOW smiley are the best I can do but I’m practicing, believe it).
    “Chacun est seul responsable de tous” 😉

    5/ About “A good hypo is a good hypo, PERIOD”:
    Ok. Got your point.
    I can detail why I still think it is a slippery slope, if you’re interested in the discussion (your “period” gives me the feeling you may not be, and since It is a debate by itself i would rather not write for wind)

    6/ Where Jesus was called:
    I was mainly disserting about Margie’s quote… Case dismissed?
    BTW: Do you think (like me) that the Tattoo story is guilty of “imaginary sweetening” the truth about how human beings may be despicable in their acts of vengeance (cf Acid Throwing)?

    8/ I’m glad I can still progress; but please be kinder in your teaching. I’m a smart guy, remember? :-p

    Thanks for your answers,
    I’ll happily welcome more if you have time,
    |\/|.

    • All legitimate points, except the one about “should have” caught it. I once lost with four of a kind in a poker game in Vegas to a little old man who hadn’t has a winning hand all night. One of the other players said, AFTER the hand, that I “should have known.” Right.
      I post 2-5 stories every day, and review 30 stories to get them. I try to use reliable sources and check what I can, but I simply don’t have the time or resources to be certain. In three years and 2,178 posts, I’m been hoaxed three times, and had four other instances where my sources were materially incorrect. They were flagged, and I corrected them, as well as highlighting the correction. I think it’s a pretty good record; I’m not apologizing for it. I apologize for the individual errors, because I’m accountable. But for someone who isn’t doing this job to say I should have caught a hoax that everyone was buying is more than a little unfair. You deserve credit for picking up on it. My trade off—if I did that much checking on every story, I’d write 20% as many posts, if that, and cover far fewer ethical issues.

      The REASON I was attracted to the story was not why everyone else was. I was attracted to it because it was a good platform to discuss the important ethical issue of revenge. And the points I made on the topic remain valid, and the debate useful, whether the story is factual or not. I could convert it to a pure hypothetical in a few key-strokes….and if I had figured out it was a hoax, I would have. “A web hoax going around the web involves a tattoo artist who punishes his cheating girl friend by tattooing a steaming pile if shit on her back instead of the design she wanted. It’s a funny story…but would such an act be justified?” It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact. The truth or falsity of the story doesn’t alter its value for ethical discussion purposes.

      Sure it’s a slippery slope. Example: Al Sharpton and Tawana Brawley. He destroyed reputations, ramped up racial tensions, and make sweeping accusations based on a pure hoax, and then refused to apologize, saying, “It doesn’t matter: this COULD have happened, because this city is that racist.” But 1) I control this slope on my blog, and 2) I was not calling for anything to be done to the supposed people involved, but merely discussing the ISSUES involved, which DO exist independently of the story. Sharpton’s argument that whites WOULD have smeared Brawley with fecal matter was pure outrageous conjecture.

      I am especially sensitive on this matter because my condemnation of web hoaxes led to the single biggest flaming I have ever received here…for a hoax bought by the New York Times. Now I’m being accused of not taking them seriously enough.

      “You can’t win, and you can’t break even.”

  4. I think a good ethics debate can stem from any controversial topic, fake or not.

    That said, I made up this news story to poke humor at the image (when I first saw the picture I wondered what the heck the back-story could possibly be, and simply made one up). I had no idea it would go viral world-wide and certainly did not think any mainstream news sources would pick it up.

    I think a lot of people got caught up in this story and they wanted it to be true because they found it so compelling.

    Also if you go to the bottom of the article and look at the categories I posted it to, you will notice one of them is ‘Mostly True’, so the hint was there.

    • Thanks for the perspective. I do think you sacrifice a lot by putting a fake story on your site. I know that I’ll never trust it again. If someone wants to write satire, they need to make the signals clear…or it’s not very good satire, and it just betrays the readers’ trust.

      Obviously I do agree with your first sentence.

  5. “I know that I’ll never trust it again”

    I understand that Jack, the truth is I am an online marketing guy and that website had been penalized by Google because of some hacking that had been done to it a couple of years ago, so it does not rank well and gets very little web traffic. I really just use it as a test site.

    “Don’t feel bad, Jack. This morning (Tu, 11/29) the story was carried on a talk radio morning-drive show as a real event.”

    The story was also mentioned on The Howard Stern Show and he came back half an hour later saying it was found to be a hoax.

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