TERRY PRONE: An internet search for the truth can reveal a world wide web of lies

THE chief executive of Yahoo is in dire straits and deep doodoo.

Scott Thompson is fighting to save his job in the aftermath of 2,000 redundancies, indicative of the organisation’s performance problems which have flattened its stock value for three years.

But that’s not the only reason his tenure at the top may be tenuous. His personal problems are complicating the situation.

He is accused of having lied on his curriculum vitae when being recruited for the top job at Yahoo last January. In the list of academic achievements claimed in that CV is a degree in computer science, which Thompson does not hold, and never did. The false claim became public thanks to a dissident shareholder.

According to USA Today, “The shareholder, activist hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, is demanding that Yahoo’s board fire Thompson for unethical conduct — a penalty that corporate governance experts say may well be merited”.

It doesn’t take corporate governance expertise to identify falsifying a CV as a fireable offence. Let’s face it, if someone gets hired on the basis of such a false claim, the company doing the hiring has recruited someone who isn’t the person they thought they were buying. Understandably, the recruiter who brought Thompson to the high-tech corporation has been removed from the board because, it may be assumed, the most rudimentary checking of the claims made in the document was not undertaken by her. Perhaps, regarding an appointment at so high a level, she felt it was not necessary. Or perhaps she relied on the fact that the same information had appeared in several biographical inputs about Thompson before his name ever came up as an executive who might be usefully seduced away from PayPal, his previous employer.

Thompson’s response to the controversy has been at best odd. He has blamed an un-named executive search firm, for starters. Now, the reputation management at executive search firms has to be pretty obsessive, because the nature of their task requires three replicable strengths: Judgement, contacts, and trustworthiness. If such a firm fabricated a degree for a client, it might be advantageous to that one client in the short term — and only in the short term — but destroy the search firm’s judgement and trustworthiness in the long term.

But even if such a firm fabricated such a detail, why did Thompson allow it to stand for more than one day, never mind for more than one year? If, as he now claims, he didn’t notice it, then it argues an inattention to detail calculated to disqualify him from the management of his local convenience store, never mind from the top job at one of the giants of multinational commerce. If he did notice it, then its continued use in his interests was the conscious building of a career upon a lie.

Someone once said that man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to. Similarly, humanity may be the only species that lies — or needs to.

The fascinating thing is that we are so bad at it. Even when actively engaged in spewing untruths, most people leak information — physical or verbal — which undercuts their deceitful intent. Police officers, recruitment interviewers, and lawyers undertake training programmes which equip them to spot the “physical tells” and verbal constructs which reveal deceitfulness on the part of a suspect or job applicant.

While some psychopaths can lie without such truth-leakage, the majority of people are rendered tense by the internal conflict caused by telling lies, and that tension surfaces in the speedier heartbeat and tendency to sweat which serve as giveaways in lie-detector tests. While it’s possible to train someone to mislead a lie-detector test, such training is difficult and time-consuming. Something inherent in humanity prefers telling the truth and generates physical and mental discomfort when people set out to mislead others, at least on matters of importance.

That said, most people can manage a social lie — eg, “You’re looking great. Really like the dress” — without problem. Similarly, many individuals deliver the welcome lie with ease. That’s the lie the listener wants to believe. At the trivial end of dishonesty, this takes the form of telling someone that no, their bum does not look big in this, while the objective reality is that the posterior in question looks as large as Asia.

At the more serious end of the continuum, the welcome lie may take the form of telling a loved one that they’re going to recover and live, while the diagnosis, in truth, holds out no such hope.

People lie for multifarious reasons. And for none.

Although we tut tut at lying in general, some lies have always been approved by society. A classic example is the untruths told in order to fight for one’s country, whether they take the form of a woman concealing her gender, as happened in many historic conflicts, or of teenagers concealing their actual age, as happened in tragic numbers in the First World War.

Even the biggest lies can achieve acceptance, as William L Shirer, the great chronicler of Nazism, acknowledged.

“It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsification and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it,” he wrote after the Second World War. “No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.”

LIKING and respecting an individual has much the same corrupting effect, not only on the personal absorption of lies told by those individuals, but on the degree to which the significance of their duplicity is minimised.

For example, Edward R Murrow, a hero to many journalists as the man largely responsible for bringing an end to McCarthyism, falsified his CV in the same way as has mysteriously happened to that of Scott Thompson: He claimed a degree he didn’t have, and just to put the tin hat on it, maintained he was five years older than he was. He later admitted to both fabrications. Yet biographies of Murrow and accounts of journalism during his time ignore these lies or interpret them as rather endearing blips of minor significance.

Scott Thompson’s ethics are publicly questioned. Murrow’s never were. The difference lies in the changing nature of record-keeping. In the past, CVs were hidden in files. Today, they figure on websites; Thompson’s was carried on the Yahoo corporate site.

It’s not often a moral imperative is supported by technology, but that’s the pleasing reality, right now. Lying is bad. But, these days, lying is also stupid — because the internet will preserve the porkie and recycle it at just the right moment. Or, in Thompson’s case, just the wrong moment.


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