Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Social media make us more honest

By Jeffrey Hancock, Special to CNN
January 13, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2012, deception seemed rampant in the news, says Jeffrey Hancock
  • He says technology enables or abets some new forms of deception
  • Still, studies find that people lie less frequently on LinkedIn and Facebook, he says
  • Hancock: People want to be perceived as truthful, especially among friends

Editor's note: Jeffrey Hancock is associate professor of communication and of information science at Cornell University. He spoke in September at TEDx Winnipeg. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading", which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- It's been an astonishing year for deception and technology. A famous author in Britain, RJ Ellory, became even more famous when he was discovered reviewing his own work, positively of course, with fake identities online. Prominent journalists were found to have plagiarized the work of others

Fake online reviews were discovered for everything from hotels to Kindle covers to doctors.

And I haven't even mentioned the presidential election.

Technology is affecting almost all aspects of human life, and deception, one of humankind's most fascinating behaviors, is no exception. Technology is making possible some interesting new forms of deception, like the butler lie, the sock puppet, and the Chinese water army.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Butler lies are those little deceptions that we tell one another to avoid social interaction. Examples include the ubiquitous "on my way" when in fact we are not on our way, or "sorry, I just got your text" when actually we just didn't want to respond right away. Another butler lie is the lost reception explanation ("I'm in a tunnel!"). Butler lies help us manage our social attention in an always-on communication world. They allow us to use the technology as a sort of social buffer to avoid interaction when we're technically always available, while at the same time giving plausible excuses to maintain social relationships we care about.

TED.com: Our buggy moral code

Sock puppets are individuals who provide reviews or commentary about their own work, usually highly positive, of course. The Internet allows for this kind of identity deception because people can chose any identity they want. But it can come with a cost when false identities are exposed. In response to the unmasking of Ellory, many authors publicly shamed him and pledged to never engage in sock puppetry.

Reviewing one's own work with a false identity isn't exactly new. Walt Whitman was infamous for doing that well before the Internet was invented. But the use of identity deception at scale, with thousands of people doing so in concert, is new. This is the Chinese Water Army phenomenon. The term refers to the large number of Chinese online writers that are paid a small amount of money to write opinions and reviews. In North America this is also commonly referred to as Astroturfing, in which an organization mimics a grass-roots movement by paying people to "spontaneously" support their position.

Pamela Meyer: How to spot a liar
Prof: 'Voters unfazed by candidates' lies'
Randi Zuckerberg in photo sharing flap

It would be easy to assume that technology is growing our lying habits. But this isn't quite right. Let's consider the most important interactions, those with our friends, loved ones, and colleagues.

Does technology make us more or less likely to lie to one another? Surprisingly, a lot of research suggests that Internet technology can actually make us more honest. In several of our studies, for example, people lied less in e-mail than face to face. The place where people lie the most? The telephone.

TED.com: Why we make bad decisions

We've also looked at social network sites and the claims people make. On LinkedIn, where people post resumé information, we found that people lie less about their past responsibilities and skills than in a traditional paper-based resume. Other work shows that Facebook profiles reflect people's actual personality, rather than some idealized version.

Even in online dating, often mocked as a hotbed for lies, we found that yes, people lie, but usually not by that much. Men lie a little about their height, income and education, and women lie a little about their weight and physical appearance. This isn't really that different from meeting someone in a bar, when you think about it.

Why might technology make us more honest with each other? One reason is that people view themselves as honest and lying violates that self-concept. This is especially true when talking to people with whom we have a relationship, like our friends and family, or want to have a relationship, like future employers and dates. Being perceived as deceptive can seriously harm reputations and relationships, regardless of the medium.

The place where people lie the most? The telephone.
Jeffrey Hancock

But perhaps the most important reason is that we are in an incredibly fluid era of human social evolution. Consider that humans started talking to each other about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, and over that time around a trillion humans have lived. The written word, however, only emerged about 5,000 years ago, and until World War II over half the world's population couldn't read or write. So, for most of those trillion humans, every word they ever said just disappeared. Gone. Now the average North American records more words in texts and e-mails in a day than most humans did throughout history.

This obviously has important implications for deception. Because of our social evolution we're not wired to automatically remember that our e-mails and texts and blogs and Facebook chats leave a semi-permanent record. Just ask any politician caught in a scandal in the last decade.

TED.com: The brain in love

On the plus side, these records give researchers a chance to study all sorts of social behavior that were mostly invisible before. We can use computers to analyze the language in these records and find word patterns that reveal deception, like whether a hotel review was written by someone who actually stayed at the hotel or not (take a look at the end of the TED talk to see if you can tell which hotel review is fake).

We're in a crucial change state between the era of ephemeral talk and the era of the digital trace, where everything we do and say creates our own personal record. Deception, whether we want it or not, will no doubt evolve with us as we adapt to this new world of communication. The future of lying, like the future of humanity, is wide open.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Hancock.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT