Another deception is getting play in this New York Times article (as noted in GMSV today). The problem this time is with Wikipedia. In short, a respected editor who used the name Essjay and was supposedly a tenured professor of religion at a private university and an expert in canon law turns out to be a 24-year-old who attended a number of colleges in Kentucky and apparently has no relevant degree.
Most curious, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales initially defended Essjay, accepting the editor’s claim that he’d hidden his identity to protect himself from reprisals for mediating disputes between Wikipedia contributors. According to the NYT article, Wales also stated that the editor “is now, and has always been, an excellent editor with an exemplary track record.” Wales later reversed himself saying that his “past support of Essjay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on,” which really doesn’t at all explain his initial defense or his reversal.
Protecting ourselves by hiding our identity can sometimes be a smart thing to do, and anonymity is often debated in PR. But anonymity is not the same as deception. If I reveal I’ve chosen not to disclose my identity, then it’s up to readers to choose whether or not to take me as credible. I haven’t deceived anyone. Wikipedia’s Essjay lied about his credentials, pretending to have experiences he never had in order to assume a position of authority. The difference is huge, and it’s hard to see what part of this Wales didn’t get immediately.
And what about lying about one’s identity for career advancement? George Eliot? I don’t think so. Actually it’s closer to the fraud perpetrated by Stephen Glass. Essjay was not writing fiction. He was pretending to be an authority on religion, and he used that authority to mediate arguments. Even if Essjay is as knowledgeable about religion as a tenured professor, his readers should have known the truth about what that knowledge was based on.
This deception sits at the heart of social media and our online interactions. How can we ever know that a person or company we encounter on the Internet is honestly represented? Initially, we can’t. In the offline world, eye contact, a handshake, a feeling we get when we enter a building all help, but even with these, we are often deceived. As more and more of our lives are conducted online, we’ll need to develop new ways of sensing deception, whether through new technology or through social media mechanisms that allow us to get feedback from the crowd – some of these are already emerging (though how can we be sure they are legit?).
The ramifications for PR are clear. Our weapons against a heightened fear of being deceived – and its consequence, cynicism – are more transparency and less hype, a lesson that needs to be passed on to clients as well.