Social Conventions September 2013

How to Catch a Liar on the Internet

Technology makes it easier than ever to play fast and loose with the truth—but easier than ever to get caught.
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Matt Dorfman

The trouble started, as trouble so often does, with The Price Is Right. In 2009, Cathy Wrench Cashwell, a postal carrier, appeared on the show, advancing to win a coveted turn at the game’s “Big Wheel.” Cashwell raised her arms. She grasped the wheel. She spun.

Here was the problem: In 2004, Cashwell had filed for workers’ compensation, claiming an on-the-job injury. She would later file paperwork indicating that this injury left her unable to do the tasks (including: standing, sitting, walking, kneeling, squatting, climbing, bending, reaching, grasping, and driving) required by her job. The enormous wheel whirling next to her, however, suggested otherwise. As would pictures of Cashwell and her husband on a zip line during a 2010 Carnival cruise—pictures that she later posted to Facebook.

In 2012, Cashwell was indicted in federal courts in North Carolina for workers’-compensation fraud. This June, she pleaded guilty. She may have lied, but her photos had not.

Most of us lie, it turns out, with astounding regularity. According to a 2011 survey, people in the United States do so, on average, 1.65 times a day. And it’s not just Americans—or, for that matter, humans—who deceive: recent studies of 24 other primate species found that they regularly lie to one another. Deceptive behavior, researchers have speculated, might have aided the social cooperation that led us to flourish.

Darwinian or not, our deceptions are now taking a decidedly digital turn. A study led by the Cornell professor Jeff Hancock, who has extensively researched the dynamics of dishonesty, found that one in 10 text messages involves a lie of some kind. In a Consumer Reports survey, one in four people admitted to falsifying information on Facebook. According to a study of online daters, a full 81 percent exaggerated their attributes on their dating profiles.

In some ways, social media and other modes of digital communication offer ideal environments for truth-stretching. We tend to have an easier time lying, Hancock says, when we’re spatially distant from the people we’re interacting with. People also tend to lie more, he has found, during real-time interactions—so we’re more likely to be dishonest via telephone or, now, instant message than in an old-fashioned letter.

Those findings, however, come with caveats. First of all, it can be difficult to quantify lies with precision, given the challenge of coaxing people into honesty about their deceptions. Second, and more significant, the lies we tell are generally not fibs of the flaming-pants variety: our daily allotment of dishonesty instead tends to involve lubricating lies (“I’m doing fine”) and logistical lies (“I’ll be there soon”) and charitable lies (“Of course that doesn’t make you look fat”). The study of online daters found that many of them stretched the truth in small ways, slightly exaggerating—or minimizing—age or height or weight (distortions that were exposed when researchers weighed and measured subjects in a lab setting). “Even though these lies were very frequent, the magnitude was quite small,” Nicole Ellison, one of the study’s co-authors, told me. That seems to hold true beyond the world of dating, both on- and offline. According to the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, “Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats”—but “just by a little.”

Résumés posted to LinkedIn, one study found, contained fewer lies than their pulp-printed counterparts.

What we’re negotiating now, though, is a phenomenon unique to this technological moment: suddenly, our tendency to tell a lot of little lies has found a lot of little ways to express itself. The digital world offers a dizzying array of methods for deception, ranging from the “stuck at work” text message (actual cause of tardiness: YouTube) to the “damn spam filter” e‑mail (real reason for non-reply: forgetfulness) to the “partyyyy!” Facebook update (party location: couch). Monkeys may lie to each other, but it’s humans who, in our ingenuity, have found ways to make those lies newly plentiful and newly nuanced and newly awkward, 1.65-ish times a day.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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