Manti Te'o and the New Burden of Internet Truth

Truth and the Internet are strange bedfellows these days, and it's much easier to lie to a large audience online than in person. Has social media made us more gullible? Or was it always this hard to tell distanced falsehood from human reality?

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I'm not going to dig too deep into the extremely weird story of Manti Te'o, Notre Dame linebacker, Heisman trophy contender, who either made up a fake girlfriend for some reason or was hoaxed into believing his fake girlfriend was real for another, because it's just so weird, and sort of sad, and we don't actually quite know what really happened yet. (ESPN's Jeremy Schaap will interview Te'o today.) And honestly, I sort of feel bad for Te'o, whether he's covering up for something else or he did it on purpose for some sick reason or he was duped. None of those options is good, really, as amusing as they may be for the audience at home. And that audience of the curious, the gawkers, the schadenfreudists, the "gotcha" types who just want to know the truth (or the truth as it's fed to them) can find all the speculation to suit their wants and needs out there, usually online. What's interesting to me in this is how it brings us right back to the Internet, and our relationship not with other humans, but with this online thing — how we interact with it, and with each other on it. Has our truth-compass failed in light of a growing online focus in our lives and media consumption? Or was it always hard to figure out the truth, and the Internet just another form by which we receive truth, a form more distanced from eyes and faces and person-to-person emotions?

Truth and the Internet are strange bedfellows sometimes, which is to say that it is generally much easier to lie to a large audience online than in person. There's greater bandwidth, greater scope, and if you're lucky and have a platform of some sort or another, lots of folks will believe what you say and pass it on to others. There is a powerful snowball effect at work, both in terms of what might be believed online, and in terms of the increasingly growing number of hours we spend here. An example of the former was the case in which in November, during Hurricane Sandy, a Twitter user known as Comfortably Smug with thousands of followers spread a number of disturbing untruths about the damage of the storm. Power was out and Internet connections were shaky, but we all clung to our reliable charged iPhones and checked Twitter for news and a lot of people believed him, at least at first. Later he was called out and he apologized, but only after his tweets had been retweeted and the false (in the midst of real) chaos he'd incited had made landfall. He hasn't tweeted again since. In books, in newspapers, in all types of print there are also people who lie, plagiarize, make up entire stories whole-cloth or simply attribute false things to people. When these people are found out, they are generally punished, fired if they are journalists, made to apologize. Knowingly spreading untruths is a capital crime in media and outside of it. Ignorantly or lazily spreading untruths is one, too, though not of quite the same degree. But sometimes we just make mistakes, and there's no journalist who can escape that truth.

Bringing it back to Te'o, it seems that quite a lot of reporters were utterly convinced, face to face, in speaking to him that his emotions about the girlfriend who never existed, Lennay Kekua, were indeed real. When our in-person judgments fail us, you certainly can't blame the Internet. It's also been hinted, from Te'o himself and Notre Dame, that this might be a problem of online proportions and the way we live now. In a statement to ESPN, Te'o said, "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."

But if we are somehow to pin the blame for what happened on how we behave online (trusting and accepting things as if they're real, apparently, when they may not be), we can't reserve that blame for only Te'o. The media also, for a long time, put forth the story as truth, never confirming that Kekua existed, until Deadspin proved she didn't. Maybe we just wanted to believe in it, this story of heartbreak and love, this story of a tragic too-early death and a football hero. And once one media outlet reports a story, it is as if all others suddenly have free, post-fact-checked reign to glom onto it and promote it as truth as well. There's not a lot of back fact-checking in aggregation, is there? It doesn't seem like it. This is a problem of the Internet, not because it didn't or doesn't happen in print, but again because the scope of the Internet is so huge, and it's so easy to simply pick up another person's opinion or story or nugget and run with it, in so doing disseminating it to hundreds of thousands or millions of others — particularly when a story goes viral. And aggregating has been made an accepted, even key, thread in the blanket of what a lot of us do here.

There are so many questions you could ask related to this story, and the broader way in which we do things now: Are we living our lives online the wrong way, as not only journalists but as humans? Is online dating somehow "dangerous"? Does anybody ever really know anybody, if we don't meet each other in person? Do we need to take our relationships offline, stop spending so much time behind laptops and on our phones, and actually be a little more real? Are we all in danger of finding that our Internet-based relationship has been a hoax the whole time — maybe not because the person we're dating is fake (because how often does a story come around like this one?) — but because we never thought of any of this as real, or really real, this strange world we've concocted where something can be so incredibly important, maybe even viral, and then, a day later or two later, disappear nearly entirely, without a thought, with not a memorial to or even a memory of it?

It can start to seem, sometimes, like we're all fake humans online, like there's no real place to grab a foothold and remember who we actually are. People who write online are often thought of as not real humans with lives and families and feelings, especially not feelings, but as characters. Bloggers are considered less "real" than reporters or journalists. And people who write about each other online sometimes treat one another as characters, too, just another archetype or a symbol of what a writer wants to get across; just a thing to plug into this story, or this one, and to get more page views, the faux coinage of our online lives. But people who are not journalists do it too: Fake personas, fake online profiles, bravado in the form of a status update created to cover up something real. Fake emotions and reactions, fake horror and outrage. More and more it seems our on- and offline lives are merging, but it's offline, too. Reality TV is the fakest TV of all. The world is full of famous (or infamous) people who lied: Lance Armstrong, James Frey, Jayson Blair, Bill Clinton, Jonah Lehrer, to name just a few. There are even greater numbers of people who simply, "discreetly," omit the truth. How real are any of us at any given point in time? Maybe the Internet offers us an unprecedented way to build who we want to be (and that's a great thing, done the right way), but the thing that's important to remember is that the majority of us, save Kekua, are real. People who live online shouldn't throw stones, maybe — or we should be very careful when we do, because glass houses break pretty easily, and that ricochet effect can be brutal. We are all humans behind the Internet smokescreen. We should act like it.

(Inset photo by Robin Corps/Flickr)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.