Lying to Tell the Truth

Lying to Tell the Truth

Lately I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the meaning of "advocacy." Greg Mortenson was an advocate. Remember him? He was the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which used donor money to build elementary schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he got into big trouble when it turned out that parts of the best-selling memoir that launched him on the path to fame were fictional — along with a lot of the record-keeping at his charity.

Earlier this month, in a long-awaited denouement to the scandal, officials in Montana (where his organization is registered) announced a settlement that ends a year-long investigation into the institute’s finances. Under its terms, Mortenson has to leave the group’s board of directors and pay back $1 million as restitution for funds he misappropriated for personal use. (One bright spot for Mortenson: earlier this week a judge dismissed a civil suit brought against him by readers angry that the non-fiction book they thought they were buying turned out to be closer to a novel.)

That news, in turn, came just a few days after "Cover the Night," the event that was supposed to be the climax of the Kony2012 campaign launched by the humanitarian group Invisible Children. On the night of April 20, activists around the world were supposed to put up posters and otherwise display their support for efforts to track down and capture Joseph Kony, the insurgent leader guilty of terrorizing East Africa. The now-famous video advertising the cause had urged its millions of viewers to make their opposition to Kony publicly known. But the planned action flopped. Posters were few and far between, social media buzz about the event virtually nil.

Why? Presumably because the video, while proving the extraordinary power of the web to rally people around a cause, got some important facts wrong. Invisible Children’s highly simplistic and emotionalized approach (which included Jason Russell, one of the group’s founders, showing Kony’s picture to his young son) backfired when many Ugandans objected to what they saw as a caricature of their country and its problems. Earlier this month people attending a screening of the Kony2012 video in northern Uganda got so riled up that they ended up pelting the organizers of the event with rocks. (The photo above shows a similar showing of the film in March.)

As the non-event of "Cover the Night" suggests, the resulting storm of controversy appears to have undermined the group’s support among its (mostly young and idealistic) followers as well. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on your organization when high school students are warning their classmates to give you a wide berth. That one of the group’s founders (who apparently suffered a nervous breakdown under the storm of publicity) was later arrested after cavorting in the nude in public probably didn’t help much.

Both Mortenson and Kony2012 have their defenders. Soon after the Mortenson scandal broke (courtesy of a lengthy exposé by author John Krakauer and a devastating report by U.S. TV’s 60 Minutes), one Pakistani reporter wrote that, whatever his sins, the American had at least succeeded in building some schools in remote regions (even if the number fell short of what Mortenson had claimed to his own donors).

Adam Finck, of Invisible Children, responded to his critics by arguing that Kony2012 succeeded in dramatically raising awareness of the need to capture the fugitive warlord. As he put it, citing the audience of the video, "100 Million People Can’t Be Wrong." No question about it: more people now know that there is a bad man named Joseph Kony roaming around in the bush. And, needless to say, you have to know about a problem before you can muster the will to solve it.

This, essentially, is the fundamental argument for advocacy: publicity is the prerequisite of action. Fair enough. But as any marketing expert will tell you, the line between advertising and lying is thin. Is it acceptable to play fast and loose with the truth in the name of a worthy cause?

Some apparently think so. A few weeks back, an American social satirist-cum-journalist named Mike Daisey kicked up a big fuss when it was revealed that he had falsified parts of a hard-hitting report on factory conditions in China for U.S. public radio. The broadcasters, to their credit, published a detailed retraction of the story. But one commentator, Joshua Topolsky, wrote a piece in the Washington Post expressing sympathy with Daisey’s actions. Topolsky argued that some manufacturers in China are indeed guilty of the abuses of which they were accused in the report. Daisey, he explained, "had to lie to tell the truth:"

What I’m saying is that sad songs have a way of sticking with us long after we’ve heard them — and Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story. To make it catchy enough to stick, even if it was a lie.

In other words, it’s okay to fudge the details as long as you’re doing it for the greater good. (Consistent with his philosophy, Topolsky subsequently had to revise his own piece when it turned out that a sin he attributed to Apple had actually been committed by a different company.)

As you may have guessed by now, I don’t think Topolsky is right about this. Let’s put aside, for the moment, the big philosophical questions about the nature of truth, and focus on a smaller one: Are you really helping your cause by stretching the facts for its sake?

In the case of Mortenson and Kony2012, the answer seems fairly obvious. Most people will reject your agenda as soon as they sense that they’re being manipulated in any way to fulfill it. You might have raised general awareness about the need for schools in Pakistan, but those schoolkids in the U.S. who once donated their quarters to Mortenson’s charity were undoubtedly deeply disillusioned to learn that he was using some of that money to jet around the world and drive up sales by buying his own books. You attract massive attention to Kony’s evil deeds by telling a more dramatic version of the story, but once you get called out on it, you end up empowering the cynics and the naysayers who claim that there’s no such thing as real altruism. Sure, they’ll say, of course those guys were lying — they just wanted to line their own pockets. Isn’t that what everyone does?

Actually, no. There are plenty of humanitarian organizations in the world that do great work, and even manage to maintain transparency about their goals and spending along the way. And, in fact, they don’t really have much of a choice. In today’s interconnected world, NGOs are big and important players, and they should expect to be illuminated correspondingly. According to InterAction, the umbrella organization of international NGOs from the U.S., funding for its 190 members runs about $13 billion a year. (And that’s just the Americans.) You can argue that this isn’t much compared with the heft of an Exxon or a Google, but that may be missing the point. Humanitarians often have a disproportionate impact on policymaking, the terms of political debate, or how aid money from governments is spent. The fact that they work in the pursuit of public goods raises the bar even higher.

So it’s not enough to complain that outsiders don’t understand you. Most NGOs accept that they bear the burden of public scrutiny — and, indeed, embrace that reality. Humanitarian organizations have always attracted a certain degree of controversy precisely because their mission often involves shaking us out of our complacency.

What sometimes gets a bit overlooked, however, is the way the Internet raises the stakes. As the Kony2012 video so graphically demonstrated, the web can disseminate and promote emotionally charged messages with superhuman speed. Yet it is also a powerful debunking engine: Claim something that’s patently untrue and more often than not you’ll quickly find yourself under attack by swarms of fact-checkers.

Charities are a powerful force for good in the world. But it helps the cause if we know that the stories they’re telling are true.