Everyone's a Fact-Checker

The Jonah Lehrer scandal and its fallout highlight the Internet's ability to find—and punish—liars.


A recent spate of fact-checking scandals plus an influx of persnickety pop-culture followers show the power of the Web to expose errors and outright lies in everything from politics to TV shows.

Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, John D'Agata. If one were to call these men journalists he might consider putting an asterisk next to the term, the way that symbol was etched onto Barry Bonds's home run record ball after he was accused of using steroids. Lehrer is but the latest, and most high-profile, in a string of writers busted this year for falsifying quotes or other text. Lehrer's troubles started in June when it was exposed that he had "self plagiarized" earlier articles he had written elsewhere for posts on the New Yorker's website. After the buzz died down Lehrer still held onto his position as a writer for the magazine. That is until the second, and much worse, scandal hit a few days ago. In a devastating piece for online magazine Tablet, Michael Moynihan uncovered that Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his bestselling book Imagine.

While we have journalists to thank for the detective work of bringing Lehrer's deceptions to light, it is perhaps the power of online interconnectivity that truly brought Lehrer down. From the comment sections on high traffic sites like the New York Times, where "Shame on him...how on earth did he think he wouldn't get caught in this age of the Internet?" was one of over 400 comments on an article outlining the scandal, to blogs to Facebook, the Web has been ablaze over the controversy. And of course there is Twitter, where, if you search #JonahLehrer prepare your scrolling finger for a severe workout to make it through the endless list of tweets. "Jonah Lehrer would write a great piece explaining why people like Jonah Lehrer make things up," Chadwick Matlin, an editor at Reuters, tweeted, bringing some snarky humor to the situation. The debacle has even spawned satellite tweet streams. A defense of Lehrer in the New York Observer written by Paul Tullis (a former colleague of mine) is now the subject of its own Twitter debate. "I call BS," one of the less vitriolic tweets, was written by Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student (this is in addition to the heated comments section below Tullis's article itself on Observer.com). It's impossible to tell which emotion is the ultimate driver of people's response to the news: indignation or Schandenfreude. But either way, the electronic mob has spoken: Lehrer must go. (And so he did. Houghton Mifflin pulled his book from circulation, and Lehrer resigned from his position at the New Yorker.)

While the Lehrer scandals are confined to the world of journalism, they are just one piece of a broad-based movement of populist interest in fact-checking. Since the beginning of the republic (not the American republic, I'm talking the Greek republic) politicians have resorted to half-truths and bald-faced lies. And while tenacious reporters and informed citizens have tracked these falsehoods over the years, until now they've lacked the interconnectivity and real-time capabilities of the Web to amplify their findings. Sites like the Washington Post's Fact-Check column and FactCheck.org, which draws hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month, often provide fodder for public fascination with fact-checking. In a meta fact-check, Snopes, the grandaddy of online truth-telling, which clarifies rumors on everything from Rush Limbaugh's draft avoidance to the notion that Lady Gaga's perfume contains blood and semen (alas, this is not true), was itself fact-checked by FactCheck.org.

As the average citizen is increasingly schooled in the deception that photographic editing can produce, photographic analysis both high and low is proliferating. On one end there is Errol Morris's blog for the New York Times, where, in an extraordinarily exhaustive three-part series dissecting the veracity of specific Crimean War photos, comments reached into the thousands. On the other end is Photoshop Disasters, a site dedicated to exposing heinously fake post-production in magazine editorial, advertisements, catalogs, and the like. While their posts at first glance are just delicious takedowns often of models or celebrities so resented for their looks, ultimately the site is a subversive and necessary counterweight to the artifice of unattainable beauty.

Perhaps the biggest and easiest target for IEEs (Internet Error Exposers) are period piece television shows and films. In his blog Prochronisms, Benjamin Schmidt, as he puts it, "looks at historical changes in language by algorithmically checking historical TV shows and movies." It is likely none has received more scrutiny than Mad Men. Utilizing tools like Google Ngram viewer, he busts Mad Men for using terms or phrases in dialogue that at the time period the show takes place either didn't yet exist or were so obscure as to be implausible for a character to use. An actress getting a "callback" was a "candidate for the worst anachronism of the season" Schmidt wrote, since that term wasn't popularized until years after the show's depicted era. His blog even features extremely dense graphs that visually display varying degrees of anachronistic egregiousness of different terms used on the show.

Presented by

David Zweig is a writer and lecturer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the novel Swimming Inside the Sun.

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