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.

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.

But here’s the good news. Research suggests that the expanding opportunities we’ve created for dishonesty are balanced by another expansion: the increased potential for getting caught. Just ask cruise enthusiast Cathy Wrench Cashwell. Or Manti Te’o, the college-football star whose cancer-stricken “girlfriend” was recently revealed, via social media, to have been an elaborate hoax. Or the many high-school students whose unoriginal work has been identified through plagiarism-detection software, and whose cheating has been detected by data analysis of exam results. Or David Petraeus, whose affair with his biographer was brought to light, in part, by e‑mail metadata.

If the director of the CIA can be caught in a lie, anyone can. More than ever before, our communications leave trails. Whether we imagine them to be “digital exhaust,” as many tech theorists do, or fodder for a bits-based Big Brother, as Orwell might have, our Facebook timelines and e‑mail chains and cellphone logs are leaving copious and minutely detailed records of our lives. Which means that the claims we make about ourselves, from the big to the banal, can, as never before, be cross-referenced against reality. Stuck in traffic? This real-time map suggests otherwise. Never got the e‑mail? The sender’s read receipt begs to differ. You’re 25? That was true, a Google search says—five years ago.

A truism widely attributed to that most famous of truth-tellers, Abraham Lincoln, holds that “No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar.” Increasingly, though, it’s collective memory that dooms a liar. People lie less over e‑mail than they do in person, one of Hancock’s studies concluded—likely because, though we’re messaging over a physical distance, the digital letter is more permanent than fleeting speech. Résumés posted to LinkedIn, another of his studies found, contained fewer lies than their pulp-printed counterparts. Just knowing that one’s claims can be seen by a large and undefined group of people, Nicole Ellison noted, can help enforce honesty. The network can be its own kind of lie detector.

That point is crucial. Whether we’re communicating via clay tablets or telegraph wires or fiber-optic cables, our deceptions are kept in check by an overarching fact that has little to do with technology and everything to do with community: we want other people to trust us. We may lie sometimes, but we don’t want to be seen as liars. A classic survey asked participants to rank the general desirability of 555 different personality traits. The one that ranked at the very bottom, dead last out of 555, was “liar.” Ultimately, other people, more than technology, are the force that keeps us honest. One of the more delightful entries in the annals of deception research involves the finding that the physical proximity of eyes (even mere photos of eyes, pasted on a wall) can encourage what researchers call “normative behavior”—in this case, honesty.

And if one thing is fairly certain about our digital trajectory, it’s that we will be increasingly connected to other people in the months and years to come. Those connections, furthermore, will be increasingly well documented. Hancock points out that his young daughter “will grow up in a world where not only much of what she says gets recorded, but probably much of what she does.” The technologies that change the way we think about privacy will also, inevitably, change the way we think about honesty. More eyes will be on us. More people will know us. The successful liar may still require an extraordinary memory; the question is what happens when we encounter technologies that refuse to forget.