Author: Jeff Hancock
Presentation: “The Future of Lying”
Review By: Lauren Liebe
Date: 24 April 2013
It’s a common assumption that the advent of the Internet and electronic communication has made it easier than ever for us to deceive one another. Without the visual tells of body language, it is often difficult to read emotion, much less intention or honesty. Lying is, as Jeff Hancock notes, “central to the human experience.”
Electronic communication certainly allows different kinds of lies than we are used to encountering in our face-to-face communications. Hancock points out three different kinds of strictly modern lying: relationship-buffering lies such as “I’m on my way” sent in a quick text message, fake reviews and endorsements written by the creator of the product being reviewed, and paid-to-produce reviews which can be written in the thousands and can skew consumer perceptions of products and services.
Is it true, then, that we lie more frequently when we have the convenient distance of technology to hide behind? Hancock doesn’t think so, and he has several studies to back him up. In one study, it was found that people lie less in email than over phone conversations or even in face-to-face interaction. Online resumes, such as those found on linkedin.com, also tend to be more honest than paper resumes. In another study, a group of people were asked to judge the personality of a mutual friend. A group of strangers was then asked to judge the same individual’s personality based upon his or her Facebook profile. In most cases, these two assessments were fairly equal, suggesting that we are actually more truthful in our online personas than is often believed. A final study looked at online dating profiles and found that while most users do tell lies, they are often only small lies (overestimating height by a few inches, for example), and usually these people only lie about one or two aspects of their appearance or personality.
Evidence suggests, then, that technological communication appears to be more honest, not less, despite popular assumptions. Hancock poses a theory for why this may be so. He suggests that we have evolved to expect no permanent record of our words. As time has progressed, however, and writing, publishing, and electronic media have become increasingly central to our daily lives, we have come to realize that our words can, perhaps too easily, be made permanent. Truth is becoming more of a necessity. Now that our words exist as fixed records, they can be broken apart and analyzed. To end his presentation, Hancock shows two examples of hotel reviews, one real and one fake, and asks the audience to attempt to determine which is which. He then explains that when we lie online (at least in reviews) we tend to use language differently, focusing more on our (faked) personal experiences rather than on the products or services being reviewed. Because such lying has become easier to spot, we, as a whole, are becoming more truthful.
I found this talk rather interesting, because it is suggesting that the assumptions we make about the honesty and validity of online communication are wrong. While Hancock does make a number of interesting points, I’m not sure that I entirely buy his argument. People, in general, may not lie as much on line, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not easier to lie through technological communication. Those of us who are inherently dishonest will likely feel little guilt about deceiving their fellow Internet users. Though methods of communication that reflect directly upon us—such as Facebook—or mimic face-to-face communication—such as email—seem to encourage users to be honest, I feel that this is unlikely to carry over to forms of electronic communication that allow users to retain some level of anonymity.
A quick search on scams run through blogging sites gets several million hits, and within the first two pages there are mentions of scams supposedly benefiting victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and recent natural disasters, offering fake housing loans, and false sweepstakes. It is clear that the Internet does, to some extent, facilitate lying.
What does all of this mean for the digital humanities? In his talk, Hancock briefly touches upon the idea that the mercurial nature of the Internet is partially responsibility for our honesty, especially in scholarly or professional venues. If we aren’t, someone more truthful can easily correct our work retroactively. Though Wikipedia is often not viewed as a “scholarly” source in academic work, it is this kind of crowd sourcing that makes Wikipedia valuable. Mistakes can be corrected quickly, points of contention can be debated (sometimes bitterly) in a public forum, and records of all the changes made to the site are recorded. People who maliciously post false information can be banned from the site.
In more scholarly works, this kind of crowd sourcing allows for greater collaboration, but it also creates the opportunity for scholars to correct each other’s mistakes, debate ideas, and provide more comprehensive work than is often possible in traditional publication. This is, by no means, a perfect system, but Hancock’s research suggests that Digital Humanities will become a more viable field as scholars and students become more comfortable with trusting potentially changeable online scholarship, trusting that online, most people are honest when it counts.