When It Comes to Workers' Rights Abuses, the Numbers Matter

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 19 2012 11:28 AM

Mike Daisey Was Wrong About Apple in China

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A man wearing a mask of Apple CEO Steve Jobs takes part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in China, outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong on May 7, 2011

Photo by ANTONY DICKSON/AFP/Getty Images

In January, monologist Mike Daisey went on This American Life and lied about his experiences in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, China for the sake of informing listeners about the abuse of workers at Apple’s iPhone and iPad factories overseas.* He may have gotten some of the facts wrong, remixed details here and there, and added a few characters for dramatic effect. But substantively, he says, the story was true. “Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out,” he wrote on his website.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

No one else is defending the confabulated one-man show, but the outrage at its lies has been tempered by the sense that he did bad things for a good cause. I’m told again and again that it’s a tragedy Daisey misrepresented the little stuff because his main argument is so important and true. “Don’t overlook Mike Daisey’s bigger point about Apple,” says CNN. “Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth?” asks David Carr. In last weekend’s retraction episode of This American Life, Ira Glass makes more or less the same argument. Speaking of the show’s original attempts to fact-check the story, he says:

Our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.
But what’s not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China.
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In other words, Daisey’s basic story was accurate: Foxconn employees are overworked and underaged; Chinese workers are in fact poisoned by something called n-hexane; living conditions are crowded; attempts to unionize are busted; et cetera. Daisey’s one-man show, excerpted on public radio, embellished a bunch of these super-true facts to give them more emotional power.

But Daisey’s version wasn’t even substantially true. It was substantially false. The version of the story that aired on the radio gave listeners a clear and false impression of the abuses at Foxconn. It inflated the prevalence and massaged the data. How much deeper could the lies have gone?

In Daisey World, the worker-rights violations at Apple’s factories are several orders of magnitude more common than they are in real life. On the radio, he states that among the Foxconn workers he met in Guangzhou, 5 or 6 percent were underage. Later fact-checking revealed that the real proportion is closer to 0.05 percent. He also specifically exaggerated the suicide rate at Foxconn factories. And his story—essentially a description of an ad hoc experiment for which he surveyed a random sample of workers—suggests false prevalence rates for other kinds of abuse, too.

In a science context, this would be considered outright fraud. No one would say, “Ah, it’s too bad—the published paper was fraudulent but the conclusions were fundamentally sound.” They’d say, “The experiment was bogus, the random sample wasn’t random, and all the inferences drawn from the data are probably wrong.”

When we buy into the idea that Daisey’s story was substantially true, we’re aligning ourselves with the fantasy world that he created for us. That’s the one in which no one cared about the Apple employees who are being mistreated in China until Daisey spun his yarn. His crime was theatrical: He contorted the truth for emotional impact. His lies helped us to see something that was really happening.

But in the real world, the numbers are different. Apple employees are being mistreated in China, but perhaps not so much or so often that it really matters to most people, harsh as that may sound. Since the actual statistics weren’t high enough to make us care, Daisey changed the data. Instead of 0.05 percent underaged workers, he gives us 5 percent. By slapping all the reported truths about overseas manufacture into a single story-collage, he makes us think that each abuse is 100 or 1,000 times more common that it really is. We may not like to imagine human suffering in powers of ten, but those extra zeroes get inside our heads. They make the difference between consumer disquiet and moral outrage, between a company that makes some mistakes at the margins and one that’s guilty of corporate malfeasance. By futzing with the mutipliers, Daisey didn’t just “lie on the way to telling a greater truth.” He lies about the greater truth, too.

*This post originally said that Mike Daisey lied about his experiences in Guangzhou, China on public radio. It would have been more accurate to say that Daisey lied about his experiences in both Guangzhou and Shenzhen, China.

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