The Mike Daisey/Apple/Foxconn/This American Life fiasco can teach us more than how to properly label your one-man theatre monologues. It gives us a little retroactive wisdom about the common traits of people selling big fabrications, and how they can be found out.
There are Big Lies, involving statistics and conspiracies. Then there are Small Lies, a.k.a. Little White Lies, like the one about why you didn't call your overly needy friend on Friday. Then there are fabrications: stories that mesh the truth and advantageous fiction to deliver something seemingly more valuable than it really is.
Coworkers fabricate to get ahead, scammers fabricate to get your money, enemies fabricate to spread tales about one another, and storytellers can fabricate to push an agenda. And, more often than not, even the richest fabrication can be undone with a little simple thinking and testing. Here's how to develop a good eye for in-person lie detection, some rather simple investigation methods, and a sense of history for how yarn-spinners have come undone.
Early, in-person lie detection
In some cases, you will have the chance to hear a fabrication told directly to you, in-person, out-loud, from the source. If you know what you're looking for, and you know ahead of time to look for it, you can use any number of clues from the teller to determine a story's veracity. They don't always work, because some people are, as the Stones put it, practiced at the art of deception. But it never hurts to look.
You can try to read their body language. Specifically, you're looking for negative body language that shows a desire to avoid direct engagement: crossed arms, looking off to the side, rubbing and scratching of the neck, and the like. You're also looking for overcompensation, in the form of stiffness and unwavering eye contact.
Then again, there are other reasons people may exhibit these traits — maybe even being nervous about finally telling the truth. And some people are just really good at winning people over. Gawker editor Adrian Chen had actually met with Mike Daisey before his fabrications became known, seeking to poke holes in some of the very same details that were later uncovered as false. But Chen ultimately found Daisey "so convincing", because Daisey's statements were "so detailed and full of compassion and humour". And, as Chen admits, they played to his compassion for the issue of labour standards in China, and his guilt in questioning someone trying to change them.
And this is exactly where you, the person who believes something is fishy with the facts story, will do better than the person who's great at reading body language.
Ask the people who would know, then ask the person who said it
When disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was found to have made up or plagiarised pieces of numerous articles, there was one detail that hit a very sad note, louder and more telling than just one reporter's lies. Many people knew they were misquoted, or quoted without being spoken with. Plenty of folks involved with Blair's stories, average folks and highly visible figures, couldn't remember seeing Blair at places and events he wrote about. But they didn't bother to bring it to the Times' attention, partly because they figured it was (sadly) business as usual, but mostly because nobody ever asked them.
The same goes for the experts who wondered about the seemingly fake agencies and crazy stories they hadn't read about anywhere else in Stephen Glass' work). Before Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for a fake story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, people working in law enforcement and social services spoke amongst themselves about how nobody else could have known about such a thing. Mountaineers had always been doubtful of the tale told in Three Cups of Tea. And before an NPR reporter working in China typed something like "Shenzhen translator Cathy" into a search engine, his colleagues were all questioning the details of Daisey's monologue. How could, for example, union workers at a Shenzhen factory afford to regularly meet in Starbucks, which, in China, are notably more expensive than in the Western World?
The point is, there are usually people involved in a fabrication, because few people are going to believe a fantastic story that nobody else was around to witness. People lend credibility to a tale, and fabulists know all too well that most people on the peripheries of their fable won't go out of their way to shoot them down. Appropriating people, and maybe even quoting them, is a strong bonding agent to hold a tale together.
But all you have to do to melt it is to pick up the phone, or just write an email, to someone who was involved in the story. If they back up what the person said, then no harm done — you were just wondering and wanted to hear it for yourself. If they can't quite remember, or see things differently, that's a big warning sign. And if the person telling the tale claims that it's hard or impossible to get in touch with those people, or tries to explain upfront why they're going to disagree, well, that's a warning sign, road flares, and an air raid siren.
At newspapers I've worked at, I've seen at least two cases of fabrication come undone in similar fashion. One was quick, because the source being quoted was a legend in his field and dead for at least a decade. Another came to light because a quoted source saw his name in a Google Alert and realised he'd never talked to the writer. And I'm fairly sure I was around for a third case involving a stark disagreement between a police officer and a reporter, but I'm hazy on the details, and memories can be easily overwritten by "better" versions.
Which brings us to how to know when it's time to check with the people around a story: the perfect detail.
Look into perfect details
Janet Cooke had the saddest heroin addict you could find in the Baltimore/Washington region. Stephen Glass had a 15-year-old hacker demanding a lifetime subscription to Playboy. Jayson Blair had tobacco fields and cow pastures just beyond the windows of a Virginia home. And Mike Daisey had 12-year-old workers, men with crippled hands who called the iPad "a kind of magic", and a version of Shenzhen and its factories that were exactly as bad as many of us wanted to believe.
Facts are messy, and almost never as dramatic as they should be. Really great and true tales come from finding the big drama in sometimes small things, not finding little things to make big drama. And embellishment is to be expected when retelling dramatic, important moments. But when someone tells a story that involves a perfect anecdote, a great moment that captures perfectly some larger belief they have, that's when you should feel free to question the people and the facts in the story.
Stephen Glass, speaking at an ethics panel in 2003, freely admitted that his perfect little moments came from self-doubt about how good his story was, and whether it would win acceptance:
"I would be working on a story and find it not to be good," he said. By inventing racy details that improved his stories, he hoped that "people would think better of me, and I would think better of me." Instead, the published lies only increased his low self-regard. An ugly feedback loop, you might say.
That need for approval, the desire to seem clever, came up in another telltale sign of a fabrication: a straight-up admission by the teller that they've lied about something else.
Look for them to say that they're lying
The easy irony in Daisey's monologue is the moment when he tells his translator that "We are going to lie to a lot of people". It's in the context of Daisey explaining his plan to pose as a businessman to obtain tours of Chinese factories, but in the context of what we know, it's telling. And it's happened before.
Jose Antonio Vargas wrote a much-respected piece about his life as an illegal immigrant for the New York Times Magazine. It was, in essence, a first-person narrative about lying through much of his life to hold onto a better life for himself and his family. But the piece was first rejected by the Washington Post, because in checking the details of his story, and his modern life, the Post found a few notable inaccuracies, and became uncomfortable with the whole enterprise.
It sounds really pedantic and, to some, probably wrong-headed. But when someone tries to sell how they used their finely-tuned skills at deception for the benefit of this story they're telling, one that is ostensibly true in every other regard, it's a tough call. As Derek Powazek put it:
There's a reason that journalists are trained not to do this, and it's not just highfalutin professional ethics. It's far more practical: If you lie to get the story, it throws the entire story into doubt. Tell the audience you're a liar and they stop believing you. Or, at least, they should.
What's the biggest whopper you've ever unravelled, and how did you do it? Let's hear about it in the comments.