Democracy Lab

Lying to Tell the Truth

Saving the world is no excuse for fudging the facts.

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.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Obama's Committee of Salvation

Preventing genocide sounds like a worthy cause. But setting up a new White House committee isn't the way to do it.

On Monday, President Obama announced the creation of a new White House body that's supposed to nip genocide in the bud. The new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is designed to provide an "early warning system" at the highest levels of the U.S. government that will sound the alarm when large-scale human rights violations are brewing somewhere in the world. As Stephen Walt noted in a post yesterday, it's a classic case of an initiative so laudable that it's hard to imagine why anyone would dare to criticize it.

Just to be clear, I am opposed to genocide. I don't think that mass murder is a good thing. Human rights should be protected.

Still, I find it hard to imagine how this particular "interagency policy mechanism" will make much of an impact. The reason for my skepticism is simple. On those occasions when the United States has failed to act against mass murder happening somewhere in the world, it hasn't generally been due to inefficient bureaucracy or a lack of information. The obstacles to well-meaning intervention generally lie elsewhere. Creating a new talking shop in the White House will do little to get rid of them.

Realists like Walt, as well as some critics on the left, share the worry that the APB will give the U.S. an additional excuse to expand its role as the global policeman. If the new board works as its creators intend, writes Trevor Thrall for the TheAtlantic.com, "it will lead to many more interventions in the future. It will create a stronger lobby for interventions within the government, it creates tools that make intervention easier to manage and potentially by [sic] raises expectations of aid from endangered people around the world." Thrall points out that the presidential directive that paved the way for the creation of the APB raises atrocity prevention to the level of a "core national security interest" and a "core moral responsibility," and that this might push the "U.S. to do some things it shouldn't."

I guess that's possible -- not that we seem to have needed such excuses for highly questionable interventions in the past. But, of course, Thrall's anxiety presupposes that the new board will actually do what it's supposed to do. On this point I am deeply skeptical.

Now, I have to admit that I've never worked in the White House, so perhaps I'm underestimating the extent to which the President of the United States will allow himself to be constrained by the existence of an interagency working group. Paul Stares, Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the members of the APB all have assistant secretary rank or higher, which should give it the "bureaucratic juice" to ensure that its conclusions reach the highest level of government. The APB is chaired by Samantha Power, the ex-journalist who's said to have good access to the president.

That said, it is notable that none of the measures taken by the president give the new board a staff of its own. But perhaps that makes sense when you take a closer look at what it's actually supposed to do. As even some of its supporters note, the Atrocities Prevention Board doesn't actually have a mandate to prevent atrocities. The job of the APB is to pool information from various government agencies in the foreign-policy realm and make sure that any indications of brewing problems get noticed at the appropriate level. It allocates no budget funds and commands no troops. I doubt very much that Bashar al-Assad is quaking in his boots at the news of its creation.

But surely more information ought to be a good thing, right? Maybe. But the U.S. government has a long record of creating new bureaucratic structures to overcome presumed information logjams, and the results aren't terribly encouraging. (Just take the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) Perhaps the APB will succeed in creating a high-powered "fusion cell" that brings together diverse streams of intelligence into a single channel whose custodians are too powerful to ignore. But don't hold your breath.

The very proposition that past genocides might have been prevented "had we only known" is highly arguable. Contrary to popular belief, the Holocaust did not happen under a veil of ignorance. The New York Times and Edward R. Murrow both reported on it in 1942. (Murrow even used the phrase "extermination camps.") On December 17, 1942, the United States and ten other Allied governments issued a statement denouncing Hitler's "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" of the Jews. President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- who, as President Obama noted in passing on Monday, received detailed reports on Auschwitz from former inmate Jan Karski -- gave a speech in which he described the "wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe" by Hitler and his henchmen as "one of the blackest crimes of all history."

We can argue about whether Roosevelt could have done more to prevent Auschwitz and other Nazi camps from continuing their operations. (I'm inclined to doubt that there was much he could have done in practical terms, and even Jewish groups seem to have been divided over the issue at the time.) But we can't claim that he didn't know what was happening.

The same applies to the President Clinton's response to the Balkan Wars or the genocide in Rwanda. As for the latter, just take a look at this remarkable collection of documents posted online by the National Security Archive. There was plenty of information available; you just had to want to pay attention. As for the Balkans, Herbert Hirsch, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalls coming to Washington early in the Clinton Administration at the invitation of one of his former students who was working in the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. The ex-student showed him seven fat volumes filled with UN-requested intelligence on atrocities committed by various forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. "We knew exactly what was going on," he says. It is certainly hard to argue that contemporary news coverage of the war in Bosnia was scanty or tentative.

In both cases, President Clinton and his policymaking apparatus had powerful institutional motives for inaction. The disaster in Somalia was still fresh in their minds. They feared electoral fallout over the potential deaths of U.S. service members. And, perhaps most importantly, they weren't sure which vital American interests were at stake. I'm not saying these were good reasons, but they're certainly useful if you want to understand why the president made the decisions he did.

By the same token, President Obama's reluctance to take a more forceful stand on Syria or Sudan has little to do with lack of a bureaucratically weighty "early warning system" and everything do with the extent of political will in the White House. Right now the desire to do more on either issue is clearly absent. The Obama Administration intervened in Libya because it concluded that the downside of action was relatively small compared with the benefits. It hasn't intervened in Syria or Sudan because so far it hasn't been persuaded that such actions are in its interest. Alter that calculation and you shift the policy. But I doubt that an interagency working group is likely to be the agent of change.

The same applies to Bahrain. You don't need an Atrocities Prevention Board to tell you that the government there is abusing its citizens. But so far the U.S. government doesn't seem very keen to intervene. I wonder if the presence of a major U.S. naval base there has anything to do with it?

It's good that Obama has declared that mass atrocities should enjoy a higher priority in U.S. policymaking. But talk is cheap. Let's see whether the policies actually change.

STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Images