In late September, five black cadet candidates found racial slurs scrawled on message boards on their doors at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School. One candidate found the words "go home n—" written outside his room, his mother posted on social media, according to the Air Force Times.
The racist messages roiled the academy in Colorado Springs, prompted the school to launch an investigation. They led its superintendent to deliver a stern speech that decried the "horrible language" and drew national attention for its eloquence.
Surrounded by 1,500 members of the school's staff, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria told cadets to take out their phones and videotape the speech, "so you can use it . . . so that we all have the moral courage together."
"If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect," Silveria said, "then get out."
The speech, which the academy posted on YouTube, went viral. It was watched nearly 1.2 million times, grabbed headlines nationwide, and was commended by the likes of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But on Tuesday, the school made a jolting announcement. The person responsible for the racist messages, the academy said, was, in fact, one of the cadet candidates who reported being targeted by them.
"The individual admitted responsibility and this was validated by the investigation," academy spokesman Lt. Col. Allen Herritage said in a statement to the Associated Press, adding: "Racism has no place at the academy, in any shape or form."
The cadet candidate accused of crafting the messages was not identified, but the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that the individual is no longer enrolled at the school. Sources also told the Gazette the cadet candidate "committed the act in a bizarre bid to get out of trouble he faced at the school for other misconduct," the newspaper reported.
The announcement thrust the Air Force Academy Preparatory School onto a growing list of recent "hate crime hoaxes" – instances in which acts of racism or anti-Semitism were later found to be committed by someone in the targeted minority group.
On Monday, police in Riley County, Kansas, revealed that a 21-year-old black man, Dauntarius Williams, admitted to defacing his car with racist graffiti as a "Halloween prank that got out of hand." Scrawled in washable paint were racist messages telling blacks to "Go Home," "Date your own kind," and "Die." The incident provoked controversy and concern at nearby Kansas State University, especially after Williams spoke with the Kansas City Star, claiming to be a black student who was leaving the school because of the incident. He was not, in fact, a student.
Officials decided not to file criminal charges against Williams for filing a false report, saying it "would not be in the best interests" of citizens of the Manhattan, Kansas, community, police said in a news release. They said Williams was "genuinely remorseful" for his actions, and published an apology on his behalf.
"The whole situation got out of hand when it shouldn't have even started," Williams said in the statement. "I wish I could go back to that night but I can't. I just want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for the pain and news I have brought you all."
When reports circulated last week about the racial slurs on the car, African American students at the nearby Kansas State University campus held a meeting to talk about the incident.
Andrew Hammond, a journalism student at Kansas State, told the Kansas City Star Monday he was "outraged and hurt" to learn the crime was fake.
"As a black student who has witnessed racist incidents first-hand around Manhattan this hurts the credibility of students who actually want to step out and say something about it," Hammond said. "I'm not sure what type of human being does this kind of thing as a prank."
About three weeks earlier, police announced that a 29-year-old black man, a former student named Eddie Curlin, had been charged in connection with three racist graffiti incidents at Eastern Michigan University: A "KKK" sprayed on a dorm wall, messages ordering blacks to leave scrawled on a building, and a racist message left in a men's restroom stall.
It's unclear exactly what prompts people to commit these hoaxes, stunts and false reports. But such revelations have become a major concern for civil rights activists who document racist and anti-Semitic incidents, particularly amid a rise in reported hate crimes since the election.
"There aren't many people claiming fake hate crimes, but when they do, they make massive headlines," Ryan Lenz, senior investigative writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project, told ProPublica. All it takes is one false report, Lenz said, "to undermine the legitimacy of other hate crimes."
These reports have also energized many right-wing commentators and Trump supporters, who argue that reports about hate speech and racist graffitti are often fake accounts disseminated by liberal media.
"Anyone (including the lapdog media) who was surprised by this hate crime hoax hasn't been paying attention," Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University, tweeted early Wednesday in response to the news about the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. "The stream of fake hate crimes became a flood after Trump's election."
"HATE HOAX: Air Force Academy Cadet Candidate Wrote Fake Racist Messages Himself," read a headline in the conservative Daily Caller.
There is even a website called fakehatecrimes.com committed to listing hate crime hoaxes.
In August, Sebastian Gorka, then-national security adviser to Trump, appeared on MSNBC to explain why the president hadn't condemned the bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. He suggested it was because the attack may have been a "fake" hate crime.
"There's a great rule: All initial reports are false,″ Gorka said. "We've had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months, that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left."
Despite the string of frauds, experts on hate crimes say that false accounts are still relatively rare.
Brian Levin, director for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, told Talking Points Memo that hoaxes do appear in hate crime reports, just as they do in reports of other criminal offenses. But these fakes are a "tiny fraction" of the hundreds of hate crimes reported to law enforcement every year.
"These hoaxes have become symbols for some who want to promote the idea that most hate crimes are hoaxes," Levin said. "That's important to rectify."
And indeed, scores of these incidents are cropping up across the country, particularly on college campuses.
Using a ProPublica database, BuzzFeed News found 154 total incidents of hate speech at more than 120 college campuses nationwide. More than two-thirds promoted white supremacist groups or ideology, while more than a third cited Trump's name or slogans, BuzzFeed News reported.
Yet authorities caught less than 5 percent of perpetrators in cases of vandalism or threats. In at least three instances, college officials determined the incident was a hoax, according to BuzzFeed News.
On Tuesday, Silveria, the Air Force general who gained national fame for his speech condemning the September incidents at the preparatory academy, stood by his original remarks.
"Regardless of the circumstances under which those words were written, they were written, and that deserved to be addressed," Silveria told the Colorado Springs Gazette in a Tuesday email. "You can never over-emphasize the need for a culture of dignity and respect – and those who don't understand those concepts, aren't welcome here."