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How the Internet makes it easier to lie — even to ourselves

Editor's Note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the ninth commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."

Who or what was Lennay Kekua?

In 2012, football fans knew her as the girlfriend that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o tragically lost to cancer. A few months later, sports fans got another story — that Kekua was a figment of social media imagination without a death certificate or any record of her ever attending Stanford, as previously reported.

The only place Kekua seemed to exist was on a Twitter account Te’o and a friend were later accused of setting up to give the story validity.

Te’o, who turned pro for the San Diego Chargers, denied that he knew Kekua didn’t exist because their relationship was conducted entirely online. Officials at Notre Dame insisted that Te’o was the victim of an elaborate online hoax.

“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” Te’o said in a prepared statement after the story broke.

Whether or not Te’o lied or was the victim remains unclear two years later. Although the Internet has helped spread truth through wide access to information and open worldwide communication, it can also blur the truth and make it easy to break the ninth commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

“The Internet was made for lying,” says California psychologist Ramani Durvasula. “Unless you’re a sociopath, it’s incredibly hard to lie to someone’s face. But online, there’s a lack of real-time back-and-forth, so there’s a lot of time for people to keep shaping and molding what they want to say. In real life, you can’t edit it, you can’t un-ring that bell."

Market for deception

The Internet makes it easier for people to lie and for lies to become widely believed, and cyber security researcher Aamir Lakhani says the Internet has even made lying into a business model.

“There are websites that let you hire fake boyfriends and girlfriends so your family doesn’t bother you about being single. We’ve created a market for deception online that makes it easier to lie,” Lakhani said. “It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you’re pushing your parents. It’s successful because people want to see how much they can get away with, and they’re constantly pushing to see.”

Noel Biderman has made a fortune based on deception. He runs a successful website, called Ashley Madison, that is proving Lakhani’s statements true, at least for some people.

The site and its sister phone app currently help 17 million members in 26 countries cheat on their spouses and cover it up with tools like the “panic” button — a feature that switches screens from the app to something more “family friendly” when other people walk into the room.

Formerly a sports attorney, Biderman started his current business in 2002 after he read about married people pretending to be single on online dating sites and decided there was a market for online infidelity.

“What we’ve found through focus groups is that people are more willing to stray than to converse. They’re unlikely to go to their partner and say, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ ” Biderman said. “Having that conversation was more fearful for them than just (having an affair) and hoping to not get caught.”

But Lakhani says the Internet also makes it easier for people to rationalize their lies because of the perceived distance that comes from not interacting face to face.

“It’s easy to hide behind a screen and a keyboard,” Lakhani said.

Durvasula pointed out that while many people use the Internet to lie, that doesn't mean everyone lies, or that people should avoid the Internet.

“This is not everyone that’s doing this. The Internet and social media are wonderful, cool tools, especially for keeping us all connected and democratizing information," Durvasula said. "You just have to try not to get caught up in the madness."

Self-esteem, self-deception

Lies unique to social media — like, say, posting touched-up photos to Instagram with a #wokeuplikethis hashtag — might seem small, but they can also have major consequences for what people believe about themselves, Lakhani said.

“What we see a lot of in social media is this desire to convey this image of something we’re not,” Lakhani said. “Because of that, you fall into that trap of self-deception. You can get caught up in it and then it becomes habitual.”

It makes sense that people would want to put their best face forward online, just as they might in real-life situations. But when countless people are exaggerating or misrepresenting themselves on social media, it ups the ante on how people think they should look and act.

“Social media is an incredible tool. The problem is, it’s taking the construct of 'keeping up with the Joneses' to a terrifying level,” Durvasula said. “It used to be that the Joneses were your next-door neighbors. Now, the Joneses are everybody on the planet.”

Lakhani and Durvasula both say that this need to “keep up with the digital Joneses” is tied up with self-esteem. One user’s picture from a dinner party is another user’s reminder of how lonely or left out they feel.

“When they can’t fill that void of loneliness or not being part of what everyone else seems to be a part of, they at least want the outward appearance that they belong,” Lakhani said. “Basically they hide what they’re feeling by showing the opposite.”

The desire to keep up isn’t just about selfies and cute-couple photos; Biderman says the Internet also makes it easier to self-deceive about what our relationships should be like. A big motivator for why people use Ashley Madison, he says, is the availability of online pornography and the way it normalizes fantasy sex scenarios.

“Ten years ago, you had to put on some sunglasses and go down to the corner store to see porn. Now, so much of it is user-generated content,” Biderman said.

Honesty, Durvasula said, is the best way to combat feelings of inadequacy or loneliness — online or off. Lying only creates more problems when people disconnect real life and online presence.

“The human psyche doesn’t do well with disconnection. If a person puts imagery out there — everything’s the best, everything’s perfect — and those things aren’t true, then they don’t even necessarily have a way to get support because all the people around them feel like they’re fine,” Durvasula said. “What too many people are using social media to do is to step out of their real lives and seek out validation that should be coming internally.”


Twitter: ChandraMJohnson