The recent resignation of Scott Thompson, CEO of Yahoo! for a mere four months, came as no surprise to most netizens once Daniel Loeb, a principal shareholder in Yahoo! through the Third Point LLC, brought his botched resume to light. Thompson’s position in the company had simply become untenable after allegations were proven true that he had lied on his resume, and in fact had no background in Computer Science.
Similarly, in South Korea during June 2010 a popular Korean-Canadian rapper named Tablo also faced allegations of faking his academic record. His detractors formed a group called “We urge Tablo to Tell the Truth,” and swarmed to more than 131,000 members at the height of the controversy. Playing on the sentiments of the Korean people by insinuating that Tablo’s high social standing also played a part in concealing his fake academic record, his accusers managed to convince a larger audience that more than academic honesty was at stake. The group was primarily challenging the claim that Tablo had graduated with a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University in just three and a half years, and refused to believe him despite documentary evidence provided by his English professor, Tobias Wolff. At the lowest point of his life, he mumbled to a reporter, “They’re saying I’m not me, and I can’t convince them I am. It’s like I’m living in a Kafka novel.” The controversy affected his music career adversely, resulting in a musical hiatus for over a year until September 2011. Were it not for the persistence his wife showed in arranging a meeting with YG Entertainment, her management company, Tablo’s music career would have ended due to rumors.
Yet above and beyond the boardroom power play behind the scenes at Yahoo! and the misguided online character assassination attempts of Tablo in South Korea, a larger social trend emerges
– the capacity of the Internet to both fact-check and spread unsubstantiated rumors is a potent mix. As in the case of Tablo, many today still believe the lies spread by the perpetrators behind the hate groups, and despite official police statements proving the allegations false, Tablo’s fan base in South Korea has shrunk.
The Internet in its role as a double-edged sword takes no prisoners, fulfilling its function as a prolific medium towards a great information pool while serving as an easy tool many employers utilize today to do background checks on prospective employees. Oftentimes disregarded with an “It won’t happen to me,” many fail to realize, for example, that up to 20 percent of companies
admit to scrutinizing the profile pages of interview candidates on popular social networking websites such as Facebook before deciding to employ them. This attitude of ignorance is one that needs addressing, as the Internet has and will continue to be used as a medium to discredit individuals, be they wrong or right. In view of this, an overarching summary of the main characteristics of the Internet, when juxtaposed against the two cases mentioned above, aims to serve as a timely reminder for responsible information management.
The first and most obvious trait of the Internet that comes to mind is the anonymity afforded to those who utilize it, effectively reducing power distance between the influential and ordinary. Tablo’s online attackers remained unidentified until Tablo filed lawsuits against them, involving the police in the matter.
Tying in with anonymity is the unique ability of the Internet to grant any individual a platform to air his or her views towards a larger global audience. Used responsibly, it provides a utopian environment for knowledge exchange and the experience of cultural interchange without having to leave one’s national borders. In the hands of rumor mongers, like in the case of Tablo, it emerges as a stage for the permeation of baseless accusations and falseness.
A third trait of the Internet lies in the digital footprints it captures we leave while interacting in an online environment. Scott Thompson initially blamed his degree error on a recruiter from search firm Heidrick & Struggles, only for an audio recording to emerge online in which he did not deny having a computer science degree, leaving his defense unsustainable.
Unavoidable, omniscient, and ever-evolving, the Internet and its ability to rapidly proliferate information to a global audience means that we need to be more aware of its implications than ever. In the case of Thompson, a single mistake in a remarkable career amplified by his digital trail cost him his job with the search engine giants. In more unfair circumstances, Tablo had to find out the hard way how an unsubstantiated rumor could personally affect his career. In retrospect, both these cases should present lessons on Internet risks associated with privacy and the manipulation of facts.
Born in Singapore, Andrew is a Communications and Sociology undergraduate student at the University at Buffalo–SUNY.