When Plagiarism Goes Viral: Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer Show Shift in Standards


Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer, and a gaggle of Coursera students make for an odd police lineup. Nonetheless, they have something in common: all of them are alleged to have plagiarized. Given new trends in social media and its impact on all forms of writing, it may be time to reevaluate what plagiarism really is in a digital world.

Imagine it: a prominent editor seasoned by over two decades at Newsweek, CNN, and Time might appear a rather unconvincing foil in the lineup. That would be Zakaria, of course. He recently lifted direct text from The New Yorker.

Next, a young, attractive, precocious upstart, spurred on by a Rhodes scholarship to ultimately pen a book every other year, would similarly raise little suspicion. But Lehrer is no filler either. His latest pieces turned out to be unacknowledged duplications of his own earlier work.

The final suspects include roughly one million students who once appeared to be honing their academic skills through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs.) For an untold lot of them, however, those skills amounted to copying-and-pasting from Wikipedia.

Ultimately, each furtive appropriation was penalized by a suspension, a call for resignation, and a teachable moment, respectively. The punishments were lauded by discerning media enthusiasts, if only for their symbolic value. One top Tweet for #FareedZakaria, for example, proclaimed, “Even the media heavyweights don’t escape accountability if found violating set rules. Praiseworthy.”

Such redress, though, has proved to be fleeting.  Zakaria’s suspension was swiftly lifted. Lehrer’s resignation at one periodical (The New Yorker) was largely nullified by his reinstatement at another (Wired).

Responses to this series of events turned cynical. One response tagged #JonahLehrer reads: “Wired welcomes back Jonah Lehrer. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. Unless you’re Jonah Lehrer, of course.” And a #Coursera search yielded only more disappointment: “Students are cheating in a #coursera subject, despite getting no credits for the subject. Now that is tragic.”

Well, not quite. In examining each instance of plagiarism individually, we may have overlooked widespread systemic flaws. The variability amongst our culprits — from an editor-at-large to budding students — indicates that plagiarism may be a prevalent practice. If so, the cause is likely to be something fundamental in modern society to which we are all susceptible rather than a select character flaw or industry pressure. 

Social media offers us a clue. If ‘going viral’ means anything, it is that new cultural norms and fixations — or whatever happens to enter the cyber system — are replicating with abandon and in abundance, like viruses themselves. What effect might virality have on how we understand intellectual property?

Social media today, unlike their sequestered news-distributing predecessors, are synergistic. Taken together, many sources become The Source for information, education, entertainment, and the rest. Social media sites make up 25% of page views in the U.S. according to Wikipedia, and not without consequence: social media is responsible for marrying 1 in 8 U.S. couples, enrolling 1 in 6 students in higher education, and extending virtual microphones to chirping Twitterites nearly 40 million times daily.

The result has been ostensibly democratic. Social media ensure anyone can say their piece before a public audience and profit from it. But this collective achievement has belied a more subtle, equally pervasive effect on online published work: it’s becoming less meaningful.

In the recent past, being a published author was telling. It meant you were likely a journalist, or a scholar, or a practitioner — in short, an expert. Universal access to online publishing platforms, however, has undone that correlation. As the relationship between expertise and published work continues to unravel, distinguishing expert commentary from the rest will prove still more difficult.

Issues of citation, then, will disappear from online dialogue. In an open source network driven by a collaborative ethos, theft (when all is shared) and deceit (when all is visible) will be impossible, strictly speaking. Indeed, the question of citation will cease to arise altogether, forcing us either to redouble efforts to educate about plagiarism or to redefine it.

If Zakaria, Lehrer, and those Coursera students are any indication, it may already be time to decide.