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,
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.