Deception can be defined as providing information to others with the intention of promoting a false belief or conclusion (Buller & Burgoon, 1996). Much of communication on the internet is still text based and as a result, it is much easier for people to deceive others online. But why exactly is there a need to deceive others online and how prevalent is it?
Much of the research on online deception is based upon various case studies and anecdotes offered by individuals (Caspi & Gorsky, 2006). Van Gelder (1996), a journalist at Ms. Magazine, reported the story of Alex, an American psychiatrist in his 50’s who participated in a chat room under the pseudonym “Shrink Inc”. In the chat room Alex used to portray himself as Joan Greene, a female who was paralyzed and unable to speak due to being in a car accident. Alex later conceded to everyone that Joan was a figment of his own imagination.
A different case study on online deception focused on a pedophile who used to portray himself as a child in various chat rooms (Quayle & Taylor, 2001). For a whole year no one was able to figure out that the child was really an adult male deceiving others online. The pedophile’s child persona was similar to how he really was at the age of 12. Fortunately (and unfortunately for the pedophile), many of the boys that he had formed relationships with online were themselves pedophiles who were representing themselves as kids in the chat rooms.
Research at a large scale has yielded conflicting information on how common online deception is. One study reported that 22.5% of people lie about their age online, 17.5% lie about their occupation, and 27% lie about their physical attractiveness online (Cornwell & Lundgern, 2001). A different study reported higher levels of deception as 61.5% misrepresented their age, 49% misrepresented their occupation, and 23% misrepresented their gender online (Whitty, 2000).
In order to explore in more detail the question of why people deceive others online, Caspi and Gorsky (2006), researchers at Chais research center for the integration of technology in education and at Open University of Israel, surveyed 257 individuals from various discussion groups about their behavior online. The participants were given a deception questionnaire that included questions on whether they have deceived others online about their age, sex, sexual preferences, health, occupation, or something else. The participants were also asked to provide their motivations for deceiving others online.
The results of the study demonstrated that most people buy into the image of internet being full of liars, but the reality is far from it. 73% of participants in the study believed that online deception was common, but only 29% reported that they sometimes, often, or always deceive others online. Even though people themselves rarely deceive others or get deceived by others online, they still believe that online deception is a common phenomenon. There are two possible reasons for this. One might be that the modest number of online deception that people personally encounter are really harmful and memorable, and the other might be that people really buy into popular conception that online deception is a common phenomenon. Neither of these possibilities were tested in this particular study.
Participants in this study expressed that privacy concerns and identity play were their biggest motivations for deceiving others online. It seems that online deception is a fun activity for individuals, as emotions of guilt, shame, and fear associated with face to face deception were nowhere to be found in online deception. This outcome is understandable as it is easier to lie to someone whom one does not personally know.
Some scholars have suggested that internet changes moral standards of individuals as digital objects are not perceived to be real objects (Crowell et al., 2005). That is why people don’t think about downloading movies and music as being the same thing as stealing. If this is the case, then do individuals also think social interactions with virtual people is not the same as with tangible human beings?
All of us have witnessed flaming, spamming, or deceiving behavior by others online. If moral standards of individuals really do alter online, then one would expect to find higher levels of deception online compared to offline social interactions. Past research has shown that people lie to each other in 20 – 30% of corporeal social interactions (DePaulo et al., 1996). This rate of deception is similar to rate of deception in online social interactions, suggesting that people do not alter their moral standards online, at least when it comes to socializing with others.
Buller, D.B., & Burgoon, J.K. (1996). Interpersonal deception theory. Communication Theory, 6, 203-242.
Caspi, A., & Gorsky, P. (2006). Online deception: Prevalence, motivation, and emotion. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9, 54-59.
Cornwell, B., & Lundgern, D.C. (2001). Love on the internet: Involvement and misrepresentation in romantic relationships in cyberspace vs. realplace. Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 197-211.
Cornwell, C.R., Narvaez, D., & Gomberg, A. (2005). Moral psychology and information ethics: Psychological logical distance and the components of moral behavior in a digital world. In: Freeman, L.A., Peace, A.G. (eds.), Information ethics: privacy and intellectual property. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, pp. 19-37.
DePaulo, B.M., Kashy, D.A., Kirkendol, S.E., et al. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995.
Quayle, E., & Taylor, M. (2001). Child seduction and self-representation on the internet. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 4, 597-608.
Van Gelder, L. (1996). The strange case of the electronic lover. In: Kling, R. (ed.), Computerization and controversy: value conflicts and social choices, 2nd ed. New York: Academic Press, pp. 533-546.
Whitty, M.T. (2000). Liar, liar! An examination of how open, supportive and honest people are in chat rooms. Computers in Human Behavior, 18, 343-352.