American consumers can't do much for Central Africa or Afghanistan, but they have real power to improve Chinese labor abuses. Will they be less inclined to believe the next person who tells them how?

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A woman solders a circuit board at a Shenzhen factory / Reuters

When Mike Daisey lied to national radio audiences on This American Life, lied to the 888,000 people who downloaded the podcast (the most in the show's history), and lied to who-knows-how-many theater audiences over two years of performing his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he wasn't wrong about the Chinese labor abuses that go into making iPads and other beloved American gadgets. He wasn't wrong that Chinese workers are often subjected to horrific conditions, wasn't wrong that Apple's supervision of its contractor's factories has been problematic, and wasn't wrong that we American consumers bear an indirect but troubling moral responsibility for these abuses.

Most importantly, Mike Daisey wasn't wrong that it is possible for Chinese authorities and Apple to substantially improve labor conditions -- without making their products any more expensive or less competitive -- and that American consumers can help make this happen. But he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does. A Marketplace reporter discovered Daisey's fabrications in a story out today, along with an apologetic press release from This American Life and an hour-long episode dedicated to the incident. For much of this afternoon, their website was intermittently slow or down altogether, apparently due to the flood of readers.

Now, the story isn't Chinese labor abuses anymore. The story is Daisey's own dishonesty, which tinges everything he touched -- the made-up details as well as the truth behind them -- as compromised and untrustworthy. The people who already know about Chinese labor abuses will immediately see where Daisey's lies end and the truth begins. Those who don't -- the vast majority, who could help change the world for the better simply by expressing a preference for ethically manufactured iPads -- might have a harder time figuring out where the line is. They know they were moved by Daisey's 40-minute monologue about exploring Chinese factory towns first-hand, and they know that the monologue had to be retracted as a lie.

How receptive will they be the next time a reporter writes about how Chinese laborers are forced to stand for so long they struggle to walk, or that some workers weren't even given gloves to handle poisonous chemicals? Will they believe the reports that say Chinese manufacturers could fix a number of these problems simply by rotating shifts or allowing workers to organize to ask for gloves, neither of which would cost them (or American consumers) anything? Will they bother to listen to the human rights NGOs who say that American consumers can help fix the problem simply by choosing to buy products that are manufactured under better conditions? Or will they think back to Mike Daisey, and wonder who else might be lying to them?

By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That's the real scandal.

Unlike the misguided Kony 2012 campaign, which sought to end Central African violence with a viral video so simplistic and condescending it could actually make things worse, Chinese labor abuses are a problem that Americans can do a lot to help simply by becoming more aware. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony doesn't care what American college kids think about him. But Apple (not to mention the many lower-profile consumer companies that use Chinese manufacturing) is incredibly sensitive to American public opinion. Their business model is predicated almost entirely on chasing the preferences of Americans (and other wealthy societies). When people wanted more color on their iMacs, Apple started making colorful iMacs, and thus sold more iMacs. When people wanted more hard drive space on their iPods, they gave the iPod a bigger hard drive, and thus sold more iPods.

When the New York Times and other outlets started running embarrassing stories about Apple's oversight of its abuse-rich factories, Apple started auditing its plants. The timing of Apple's audit -- announcement 20 days after the Times story -- certainly suggests that they were reacting to negative public opinion. Maybe it was a cynical move by a self-interested company, but it was also the free market at work. If Americans continue to express a preference for humanely produced smartphones and tablet computers, that's exactly what Apple and every other high-tech company will try to give them. Maybe they'd do it with high-profile audits, advertising campaigns about their improving standards, or even an organic-style certification process for proving that your iPhone was made in suitable humane conditions.

Between 2002 and 2008, the organic food market jumped from $23 billion to $52 billion, because consumers showed a preference for organic foods even though they are more expensive. Consumers en masse told agriculture companies (which have environmental abuse problems in the way that tech companies have labor abuse problems) that they were willing to pay a premium for environmental sustainability. Now, more than 11% of fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. are organic. That's probably not because enormous agri-businesses suddenly developed a conscience.

Neither the Chinese Communist Party nor Chinese-based manufacturers like Foxconn are likely to start promoting better labor rights out of the goodness of their hearts. They are clients of Apple and other American firms when it comes to high-tech manufacturing. And those American companies are clients of American consumers, who have more power than they might realize. Mike Daisey (and more traditional media outlets) got so many American consumers to care about Chinese labor abuses that Apple started to improve those conditions before Americans could start voting with their wallets by buying tech products with less troubled reputations. Now it's Daisey, and the important cause that he served so poorly, who have the troubled reputation.

Invisible Children, the bizarre NGO behind Kony 2012, abused good American intentions to accelerate a video campaign that made its founders famous, propagated outdated neo-colonialist ideas, and ultimately had little actual effect on Central Africa. Greg Mortenson, in his 2006 best-seller Three Cups of Tea, lied about his work in Afghanistan to make it seem more impressive and to sell more books, but again the harm was mostly to the many Americans (including me) he'd duped. Most Americans will never directly effect the events in Central Africa or Afghanistan. But we Americans are all directly linked to a global economy that has Chinese factories, and thus Chinese labor abuses, at its center. Mike Daisey traveled the country lying to the very people who are best positioned to do something about it. If they are less inclined to act as a result, he will have done far more harm than any number of misguided viral videos.

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