I want to believe that telling the truth matters. Advocates who have any belief in democracy as a value have to think that if people only knew what they know they’d agree. Activists take on a public education job when they take on a cause, and they should have little reason to lie.
This past week, however, shows both the temptations and risks of cutting corners on the facts.
First, there was the extraordinary Kony 2012 video, sponsored by Invisible Children. Dozens of people from diverse networks forwarded me links to the viral video, and I wasn’t alone. At this moment, youtube counts more than 82 million views. This is amazing. Justin Bieber, with 18 million followers of his own, tweeted in support of a campaign to stop Kony, and forwarded the video, as did other celebrities. This was certainly the first many Americans heard of Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony is a true villain by any definition, and awareness IS important.
But: the video isn’t exactly accurate on details, and maybe not as helpful as it could be about describing potential courses of action. In a transparently manipulative way, the filmmaker, Jason Russell, described Kony’s abduction of children to his preschool son on camera. The video overstated the size of the LRA, and ignored Uganda’s success in driving Kony’s forces out of the country. The prime strategy for action was donating money to Russell’s organization, Invisible Children.
But 82 million hits??? Are some corners worth cutting or facts worth shading to get the story out to so many people? Surely, they’ll be in a position to learn more eventually. But the public debate quickly turned away from Kony to the distortions in the video, and ultimately to Russell himself, who hurt the cause by appearing naked on the streets of San Diego. It remains to be seen whether all the awareness he generated evaporates in confusion or disgust.
Another variant of this problem is Mike Daisey’s story about the production of iphones in China. Daisey had been performing a monologue ostensibly detailing his investigations of the lives of Chinese workers making the iphone. This American Life, a wonderful weekly radio show, excerpted Daisey’s show and presented it, generating more attention than any previous episode in more than ten years on the air. Partly as a result, activists staged protests about Apple’s labor practices to coincide with the release of the Ipad 3. (By itself, this opportunistic protest should have been good fodder for politics outdoors.)
Daisey dramatically portrayed the difficulties and dangers Chinese workers face, including extremely long shifts, unsafe factory conditions, low wages, and child labor. None of the wrongs were invented out of whole cloth, but the monologuist fabricated interviews, visits, child workers, poisoned workers, union organizers, and telescoped dates and events.
This American Life issued its first retraction. Although the show often presents fiction, it is always labeled as fiction. (Indeed, fiction labeled as such can be extraordinarily effective in dramatizing a cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe could readily acknowledge inventing Uncle Tom without compromising the moral truth of her story.)
In the full hour devoted to explaining and apologizing for running the story, host Ira Glass interviewed Daisey, who repeatedly announced that he was apologizing, but explained that he stood by the “theatrical truth” of his monologue. It’s about generating attention and a feeling, he said. He’s not a journalist, he explained, but an emotional storyteller.
Again, the spotlight shifted from Apple, outsourcing, and labor practices to the veracity of the narrator. Is buying from Apple as bad as lying?
These are particularly dramatic examples of a practice that just isn’t that unusual: distorting truth to craft a story that generates support for your side. (Indeed, the recently departed Andrew Breitbart, was proud of his skills at taking snippets out of context to present a dramatic–and less than accurate–slice of reality.) The temptation to improve a story to make a point you judge to be more important is obvious; the risks of doing so are forfeiting your credibility and undermining your cause when the distortions come out.
Let me confess that my job as a professor biases my outlook; I’m completely invested in finding real answers and in using accurate information. I want to believe that telling the truth helps in the end, and that lying will ultimately backfire.
Alas, the evidence isn’t really all that strong. It’s one thing to use harsh and nasty language about your political enemies; that’s a seamy part of the deal of engaging in public life. And well-intentioned people can differ about appropriate responses to climate change, the most just or advantageous level of taxation or the morality of abortion.
But honest and well-intentioned people can agree about the scientific consensus on climate change or on historic levels of taxation. Agreeing on the facts makes meaningful political debate possible. To the extent that advocates offer distortions or lies that deem to be advantageous for the short-term, they undermine the prospects for real democratic governance. Unfortunately, they may help themselves by doing so.