In 2003, Facebook and other social networks basically didn't exist, and the soldiers who wanted to expose NBC News Anchor Brian Williams's exaggerations and lies about his time reporting from Iraq were reduced to leaving notes in the news vans of rival networks, and being angry at their televisions. Then social media and the ubiquity of the internet came along and changed everything.
This is all according to a recent New York Times article, 'Brian Williams Scandal Shows Power of Social Media' by Ravi Somaiya, which examines the impact that social media had on breaking the story, and keeping it in the public eye. The story first emerged due to a single comment on Facebook challenging the account Williams gave of being in a helicopter that was hit with an RPG in Iraq.
Williams's story was then examined by Stars & Stripes, the newspaper of the U.S. armed forces, and it grew into a full-blown scandal soon after. Of great import was the effort on other social networks, especially Twitter, to keep the story in the public eye. One of the most successful was the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers, which inserted the news anchor into various historical contexts in a meme-y and sharable fashion. Also damning was the evidence turned up by internet sleuths suggested the Iraq story was not the only one that Williams had exaggerated.
NBC conducted an investigation. Brian Williams was suspended for six months. Lester Holt was named as permanent news anchor. Williams made a series of public apologies and was shuffled off to MSNBC in a lesser position.
The whole story is also a demonstration of how things don't just disappear into the ether in the internet age. Everything is stored on a server somewhere, and it wasn't difficult for internet sleuths to dig into the NBC archives and video clips on YouTube to put together a comprehensive timeline of how Williams's story changed and grew from interview to interview, as demonstrated in the video below from the New York Times.
What many of the think-pieces about the scandal fail to note is that what might have been the real cause of the scandal is that Brian Williams is old. Well, not too old, but he's 56. His brand of journalism and the news culture he came of age in was one where newspapers were thrown out the next day, and the evening news, after its initial broadcast, was only of interest to an archivist. And if a story changes over time or grows more exciting in the retelling, well, no one's going to notice. But that's not how it is now. The internet notices, and the internet remembers.
Without the use of not just social media, but also the infinite memory of the internet, Brian Williams might still be prattling off this story on various talk shows and making guest appearances on sitcoms, and the soldiers who were actually in danger that day in 2003 might still be shaking their fists at their TVs, their stories remaining unheard. But times have changed, and those who lead the news should get used to it.