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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT