Falsehoods: The Truth About Lying in the Digital Age

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs,” by Georges de La Tour. (Late 1620s.)
Wikimedia. PD-Art.

In this recently posted TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock identified three types of lies that he’s been seeing a lot of lately—the colorfully named Butler, Sock Puppet, and Chinese Water Army—but he also challenged the common notion that the Digital Age, with its greater anonymity, generates more deception.

Hancock, who did his share of deceit-tracking as a customs officer for Canada in the mid-1990s and is now an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University, acknowledged how much has changed in the way we communicate. “We email, we text, we Skype, we FaceBook … That’s had an impact on deception.”

He gave examples of the Butler, a tiny lie someone tells when they want to spare feelings, protect themselves, or preserve a relationship in an environment where it’s possible for others to connect to us 24 hours a day: “Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. My battery was dead. Your battery wasn’t dead … You just didn’t want to respond to that person at that time,” he said.

“These lies are being used to create a buffer like the butler used to do between us and our connections to everybody else. But they’re very special,” he said. “They use the ambiguity that comes from using technology. You don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or who I’m with.”

Another kind of deception is the Sock Puppet (for an example, read about R.J. Ellory’s fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.) Take the same kind of deception to a larger scale and you get the Chinese Water Army (or its American equivalent, Astroturfing). “We see this especially with product reviews, book reviews—everything from hotels to whether you think that toaster is a good toaster or not,” Hancock said.

But when Hancock and his colleagues looked at people’s ordinary online behaviors, they didn’t find them replete with deception. In one study, Hancock and his colleagues asked participants to document all their communications and lies for a week. They found that people were the most honest on email and the least honest over the phone. They also found greater honesty on Linked In, as opposed to paper resumes, and discovered that users’ FaceBook profiles were actually a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities.

This evidence that online communication is actually fairly honest may have something to do with how, for the first time in human history, so much of our lives are thoroughly documented, Hancock explained. On their own, humans do a poor job of recognizing deceit, but today’s networked communications open us up to greater scrutiny. Hancock went on to discuss how he has developed a computer algorithm (based on language patterns) that can distinguish between real and fake hotel reviews with greater accuracy than people can.

Today’s communication records, with all the truths and falsehoods they contain, are a goldmine for social scientists, he added. “We’re going to learn so much more about human thought and expression—about everything from love to attitudes.”

In addition, they may lead people to be more honest, he believes, as they consider what legacies they want to leave behind. “Because now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.”

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