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David Tereshchuk

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The Phone's Fickle Power -- in Text and Image

Posted: 12/22/11 01:01 PM ET

What is the most mendacious medium? We get an answer, in early word of a study to be published in next March's issue of the Journal of Business Ethics.

Did you know there was a Journal of Business Ethics? Well, there is -- published by the long-established publishing house of Springer, founded in 1842 in Berlin and now a world-wide enterprise. I wonder how many businesspeople know there is a Journal of Business Ethics.

I digress. The JBE will be publishing details of a survey conducted at the University of British Columbia, comparing the truthfulness of individuals selling financial stock through different means of communication.

It turns out people are more honest when selling something if they do it in person (perhaps not surprisingly) but a shade more honest still if they do it over a video link -- which is intriguing. But disturbingly, they are most likely to be deceitful when conducting a transaction by texting. Karl Aquino, a business professor at UBC, and co-author of the study, summarizes it this way:

Our results confirm that the more anonymous the technology allows a person to be in a communications exchange, the more likely they are to become morally lax.

Depressingly predictable, huh? The eye-to-eye contact we have in person is a clear disincentive to lying -- and this is actually heightened by what the UBC team calls the "spotlight effect" of knowing all too well that you're being captured on camera if you make your pitch via Skype, Facetime, or other forms of live video connection. Hiding behind your thumbs on a mini-keyboard is evidently the most attractive place to be a liar.

Mobile phone giant AT&T got called on its current eager pitch -- and the company, somewhat sullenly, dropped it this week. It had spent the credulity-stretching amount of $40 million on advertising to support its bid to take over its smaller rival network T-Mobile. And that's not counting the sum -- said to be even bigger -- that it devoted to lobbying for the bid in Washington (on what, exactly, was that spent, we must wonder?)

After objections had mounted over the past six months, including crucially from the Federal Communications Commission's chairman Julius Genachowski and from the federal Justice Department, the company's claim that the merger would -- get this! -- not raise prices, or limit the range of choices available to customers, finally became insupportable -- and CEO Randall Stephenson practiced discretion as the better part of gung-ho valor and withdrew.

It's hard not to agree with Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole when he issued the administration's assessment:

This result is a victory for the millions of Americans who use mobile wireless telecommunications services.

The power of mobile phones as vehicles of truth, too, should be recognized.

They were key in this week's astonishing turn-out of women in their thousands, filling and over-filling Cairo's Tahrir Square. They were denouncing Egypt's governing Military Council for its resistance to real change since the Spring uprising (and toppling of ex-President Hosni Mubarak) and especially for its presiding over the recent vicious targeting of female protestors by male soldiers.

From the beginning of the week smartphones were burning up the airwaves with one video image in particular -- the woman who was kicked, clubbed, stripped of her black abaya, revealing blue jeans and a blue bra, and kicked again by booted soldiers.

That one image alone was enough to further enrage protesters already risking their lives (at the cost of 13 killings over five days) -- and when it was taken up by non-State broadcasters, and sent to desktops and laptops in homes and offices throughout the city, there was no stopping the avalanche of angry Cairenes, especially women, into the streets.

The pictures clearly affected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, prompting her to make a powerful public indictment of the Egyptian authorities -- quite a contrast with some of her recent somewhat automated media appearances.

Her role as one, at least, powerful purse-string holder for America's annual $1.3 billion aid program to Egypt helped her fury make an extra-deep impression upon the Military Council. That, and the vast army of outraged Egyptian women themselves.

It was quite something to hear the official apology -- which naturally enough no senior army man was man enough to publicly announce himself:

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its utmost sorrow to the great women of Egypt, for the violations that took place during the recent events.

We must wait of course to observe if the apology leads to lastingly changed behavior among troops on the ground, in front of the news cameras and citizen's cellphones. Let's see if the so-called "spotlight effect" makes any difference there.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat", with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD.

 

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