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.