This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class. For more about this assignment, click here.
Google is no stranger to privacy hiccups, but the controversy surrounding Latitude, its location-broadcasting platform for mobile devices, was a bit surprising, even for me. I’m normally pretty keen on privacy, but I could not believe the multitude of users who clamored for the ability to set – and thus lie about – their locations. Yahoo had released a similar product a year earlier, except with the explicit provision of manual location entry. And it seems Yahoo head of product Tom Coates was right: “it’s a good thing that users can lie.”
Intrigued, I used this quote as a launchpad into my research project for Stanford’s Networked Rhetoric class. I want to explore the ways by which technology has affected the way we lie, in particular focusing on recent developments in social communication technology – email, instant messaging, text messaging, video conference, smartphones, and online social networking sites. I hope to compare deception practices in these contexts with the more traditional forms of face-to-face and telephone communication. Fortunately, Cornell researcher Jeff Hancock has performed numerous quantitative studies of deception along similar lines, establishing him as one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of deception. His 2004 paper “Deception and Design: The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior” had especially interesting results.
Before reading his study, I would have guessed that social technology had opened up so many new ways of communicating that people would find technology-assisted lying overwhelmingly easier and more prevalent. After all, Google and Yahoo had just given me two examples of user-demanded lying, and it was not hard to find a multitude of other examples. Fake Calls, an iPhone application designed to simulate incoming calls, and online dating sites came immediately to mind. It was obvious, I thought, that technology had increased our ability and desire to lie.
But Hancock’s study gave a startling rebuttal of that claim. Using a week-long diary study of 30 college students, Hancock et al. analyzed the daily rates of communication and deception in face-to-face, email, instant messaging, and telephone interactions. He found that face-to-face communication accounted for a dominating 65% of an individual’s daily lies. But when adjusted for the frequency of use, Hancock found that lies were most frequently told on the phone (38%), followed by face-to-face (26%), via instant messaging (22%), and least of all, by email (12%). His research suggested that people tended to lie most in synchronous, non-recorded modes of communication that involved a physical separation between parties. While his results support his claim, this was still disturbing to me, as most of the social technology examples I had named were asynchronous and recorded, putting them in a similar bracket to email.
Of course, before I write off my initial hypothesis, it’s important to keep in mind that Hancock’s study was performed in 2004, before many of the social technologies in my list really matured. To put this time period in perspective, 26 times more texts were sent in 2008 than in 2004, and now-common technologies like the iPhone (2007), Facebook (2003), and Skype (2003) were not at all used. So it’s quite possible that lying practices have changed considerably since Hancock’s study. Furthermore, based on email usage trends collected as part of the study, he concluded that “increased experience with a communication technology may lead to increased deception with that technology.” Now that users are more familiar with technology-mediated communication, has the lying picture changed?
Technology-mediated deception is an ongoing topic of research, but as far as I know, no comprehensive research has been done in recent years comparing the effects of these various social technologies on deception. I look forward to piecing together this research and plugging this hole in society’s knowledge.
Stanford University, Class of 2012