Before deepfakes and alternative facts, the online world was already telling us fibs. In our series Lies the Internet Told Me, we call ’em all out.
If you and the version of yourself that you present to the world online went for a drink together, would you even know each other?
Let’s be honest: In this vast anonymizing realm we call the internet, we all lie a little. Not just on the small stuff, though there is a lot of that; we also tell more intangible lies about the biggest thing we have to talk about, our identity. We smooth over nuance to fit ourselves into checkboxes. We adhere to our “personal brand,” which doesn’t always reflect our truths. On Facebook we tell many lies of omission, often without realizing.
Even those of us who are scrupulous about calling out Trumpian “alternative facts” when we see them are not immune to the desire to show our best face — a face that eventually hardens into a mask.
The lies start young, often when we encounter our first age-related barriers to being extremely online. According to one 2013 survey by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, an eye-popping 83 percent of those 11 to 15 had registered at least one social media account with a false age. A more recent survey found 61 percent of children in the country had social media accounts by age 12.
It’s almost a rite of passage, it seems, the modern equivalent of getting a fake ID for underage drinking — except in this case, we’re more likely to fudge our age with parental approval. Another UK survey, in 2017, found that 60 percent of parents were happy to let their kids lie about their age to get on popular social media sites (most of which have a minimum age of 13, though it varies, due to online privacy laws).
You may well ask: so what? Kids are always going to act older than they really are, or go places they’re officially not allowed; far better that they do so with full parental awareness. And you’d be right. But it’s telling that the very first lesson of so many social media lives is this: It’s okay to tell little lies about myself, if it gets me to a place I want to go.
The next focal point for little lies comes with our first online dating profile. Here too, we might lie about our age, to make us seem more mature (until we hit our 30s or 40s, and the age lie hits reverse). More likely, we lie about our weight. A 2008 study that looked at the profiles of 80 Match.com users — then weighed and measured them in person — found that they were off by an average of about 5 pounds. Their reported height was more accurate (a third of an inch was the average deviation). But if the anecdotal evidence of dating horror stories and this April Fools‘ joke is any guide, the height fib is more prevalent in the Tinder era.
We stretch the truth about our hobbies to sound more interesting. We lie about what books we’ve read — or more commonly, what books we actually finished — in order to sound smarter. We skim headlines and pretend we’ve read the article. We smooth our skin and otherwise touch up our photos to meet what we think is the definition of beauty; apps make that process easier by the day. Again, we’re not talking about the big and malicious lies, the deepfake video, the catfishing profile, the troll, the Twitter bot. This is just the slow, daily erosion of sincere online truth.
We may be more reluctant to share stuff on Facebook in the wake of its various privacy scandals: in a 2019 Consumer Reports survey, 74 percent of respondents said they’d altered their behavior on the service. But in practice, that likely means the stuff we share is more anodyne (our great vacation, our amazing lunch). We’re even less likely now to talk about the difficult stuff (our depression, our loneliness, our grief) for fear of which advertisers, marketers, employers, or health insurers might be listening.
Those who push a professional or personal brand (which, these days, is most of us) aren’t exactly lying. They’re just being selective about what they share. They aren’t going to post opinions their employers or clients would disagree with, of course. But they’re also tweaking the brand based on what garners engagement. If you tweet about a topic and a lot of people retweet it, you’re getting a dopamine hit, which makes you more likely to tweet about that topic again. And one more guardrail is erected around the edges of your personality.
It’s natural for us to want to know ourselves and show ourselves by our membership in various tribes. Whether you cheer or decry the rise of so-called “identity politics,” you can’t deny the rising desire for simple, shorthand definitions. We want to slot ourselves into categories based on our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity (or that of one of our parents), or our political allegiance. And that’s all well and good, especially in an age when many of these definitions are under attack from dangerous idiots who would deny them the right to exist.
Trouble is, fitting into those shorthand categories often seems to involve sanding down some of the rough, quirky edges that make us individuals. We act as if identity is monolithic, when it’s anything but. We self-stereotype. “I’ve noticed it with a lot of second-generation Americans who struggle to integrate their parents’ cultures into their lives,” says my colleague Morgan Sung, who has written about subtle Asian traits groups on Facebook. “A lot of these groups make the entirety of Asian identity about liking boba. I don’t like boba and I feel weird about it!”
Perhaps this is an inevitable part of the evolution of the internet. Just as an MP3 compresses the range of music we can hear in a song, the better to deliver it quickly and efficiently to your devices, we are trying to compress all of human culture into one text- and photo-based medium. In any facsimile of reality, details are going to get lost.
But the weird thing about this online compression of human identity is that it doesn’t lose the extreme parts of the sound, the way an MP3 does. In fact, it enhances them, and cuts out the center channels instead. Social media and news ecosystems thrive on controversies that make us choose sides. YouTube’s algorithm is designed to push videos that will keep you watching, and extreme viewpoints do that better than anything else. Your moderate conservative uncle clicks on a Fox News story, and six weeks later he’s a frothing-at-the-mouth QAnon conspiracist.
This will likely not be the case forever. We live in an age of moral crisis and shredded norms where neutrality looks like (and often is) the dumbest position. Issues like Brexit, Trump, and climate change demand that we take a stand. If and when global politics quietens down, online citizens may start to prize negotiation and compromise.
As the internet expands, there is more room for nuance. Memes based on self-stereotyping have a short shelf life. We get tired of pigeon-holing ourselves just to fit in. Through trial and error, we gain enough courage to share the hard internal battles we’re fighting. We stumble across more avenues to non-judgmental support. We learn who our friends really are.
And then maybe, one day, if we’re lucky, we look at our online persona and see not a wacky funhouse reflection, but a magic mirror that tells the unvarnished truth.