A Dutch student named Zilla van den Born decided to test this out with her friends a couple years back when she faked an entire vacation by posting pictures that made it look like she was in South East Asia on Facebook instead of on our couch. “I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media and that we create an online world which reality can no longer meet,” said van den Born. “My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”
With all due respect to van den Born and her experiment, online manipulation of reality isn’t anything new. Ever since Lonelygirl15, it’s been common knowledge that what you see is frequently not what you get. Some would say social media has made us more honest for having learned this lesson. But the sheer amount of misinformation that gets spread through it indicates plenty of bullshit still prevails.
But van den Born did hit on an interesting topic by bringing up the question of how prevalent lies are on Facebook specifically. Studies already showed that around 25 percent of all Facebook users participate in some kind of lying on the site. What lies are people spreading around Facebook the most? There are at least a few almost everyone has seen.
1) Inaccurate personal information
This might actually be the best kind of lie you can tell on Facebook. Although the site has been trying to crack down on outright fake accounts, some people create alternate profiles for safety reasons, while celebrities do it all the time to maintain anonymity. While most people don’t have a reason to present themselves as a totally different person, many are telling little white lies to protect the elemental facts about themselves. In 2012, Consumer Reports found that 25 percent of Facebook users had “ falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity,” a statistic that went up 10 percent from two years previously.
Others are taking a more drastic approach. A piece by Forbes’ Kashmir Hill from a couple years ago profiled several individuals who advocated not only fibbing about personal information but actively trying to throw advertisers and other interested parties off your scent.
Steffan Heuer, a long-time technology journalist, says Facebook is not the only entity on the Internet that you should be lying to. He and fellow journalist Pernille Tranberg just published a book on digital privacy, Fake It, which admonishes Internet users for, essentially, being too honest online… He suggests more subtle lies: using an alias on Facebook, lying about your birth date when forced to enter it, using disposable email addresses to sign up for one-time account. He suggests that the Facebook alias not be obviously linked to your identity, suggesting you change your gender, your sexual preference, and religion there, to throw people off your scent.
Lying about your birthday is one thing, but it’s understandable why most users wouldn’t want to change their name or identify as a different religion just to maintain a Facebook account. That said, taking steps to uphold one’s online privacy becomes more essential every year, and feeding a few harmless lies about your personal information to Facebook can’t hurt.
2) Your age
This is kind of the caveat where personal info is concerned. If an adult doesn’t want to give Facebook their birthday, that’s fine for them. Where this gets tricky is when you bring kids into the equation.
In theory, you’re supposed to be 13 before you can sign up for Facebook. But according to research, over 80 percent of children lie about their age in order to use social networking sites. That makes this not only of the more common lies on Facebook, but one parents should watch out for.
3) Pretending you’ve read something you haven’t
As Literally Unbelievable demonstrates, there are hordes of people on Facebook at any given time who are more than happy to post links to an article they haven’t read. So what’s the difference between being stupid and truly lying?
Karlo Taro Greenfield at the New York Times wrote a piece last year called “Faking Cultural Literacy,” which proposes that the increased access to information the Internet age has given us has led to a constant race to keep up. Greenfield writes, “It’s not lying, exactly, when we nod knowingly at a cocktail party or over drinks when a colleague mentions a movie or book that we have not actually seen or read, nor even read a review of.”
However, it does become lying when we start to weigh in with our opinion, and unfortunately, this practice is all over Facebook. Just take a look at NPR’s brilliant April Fool’s Day prank from 2014, wherein they posted an article called “Does Anyone Read Anymore?”, which led back to a message that said, “Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’” Unsurprisingly, lots of people fell for it, freely giving their opinion without looking at a word of NPR’s post.
For Jenna Kinsley at the Emory Wheel, these users are some of the lowest on all of Facebook. “Bullshitting your Facebook comments is unacceptable for a variety of reasons,” she writes. “First of all, the article or the video or the graphic is literally right there. You’d have to extend your mouse approximately two centimeters and exert one click to access the information, plus or minus some scrolling.”
But the lying goes beyond the commentators. People who mistake the Onion for real news are almost an exception, since clearly they have a bigger problem with interpreting information they need to deal with. But people who post links to serious news articles, acting like they’ve read them when they haven’t, may be some of the most frustrating liars of all on Facebook. And what’s worse is that this happens all the time.
Tony Haile, CEO of the Internet data analysis company Chartbeat wrote a piece for Time about this in March 2014. Haile claims that “a widespread assumption is that the more content is liked or shared, the more engaging it must be, the more willing people are to devote their attention to it.” He continues, “However, the data doesn’t back that up. We looked at 10,000 socially-shared articles and found that there is no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.”
Will lying on Facebook to make it seem like you know more than you do upend civilization? Probably not. But at the very least it belittles the intelligence of yourself and everyone around you. So when it comes to in-depth articles, just don’t do it.
Facebook’s Photoshop fakers are sort of like the cousins of the #nofilter liars on Instagram. Oftentimes, their results end up being so egregious, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to photoshop their Facebook pictures in the first place.
The darker side of this is that lying through Photoshop is ultimately trying to lie about your body, which presents serious issues for many people. No one is saying Photoshop isn’t super cool. However, when there are plenty of professionals who can’t even seem to master it, the average Facebook user shouldn’t expect to do much better. In the end, you’re better off just trying to find your best angle.
5) Celebrity death hoaxes
These are usually more common on Twitter, but they can spread like wildfire through Facebook, too. Celine Dion found that out. So did Jackie Chan, who also took to Facebook to prove that he was still alive. Bill Nye has been the victim of these things multiple times, with pages devoted to his passing racking up thousands of likes.
Another person who has suffered through several death hoaxes is Bill Cosby, but what’s interesting in his case, is that someone actually came forward to take credit for one such incident. “My name is Jonathan Gorman,” he revealed on Facebook, following rumors of Mr. Cosby’s untimely demise in 2012, “and I am the page admin/creator. With the recent slowdown of likes and high amount of attention from news sources… I have come to the conclusion that I should tell you all the truth. Bill Cosby is not deceased… I made around 315 THOUSAND people angry… I love you all for making me laugh at your stupidity for the past day and a half. You’re great.”
Real classy, dude. Later, Gorman did clarify that he had a motive beyond getting his kicks, posting the message, “Before I got to bed, one last thing. I hope you all have learned your lesson. DON’T RELY ON SOCIAL NETWORKING AS YOUR ONLY NEWS SOURCE.”
So, thanks for the lesson I guess?
What’s frustrating here is that Gorman is part of the exact system that he’s rallying against. Or to put it another way, if you don’t want people to believe all the crap they read on Facebook, don’t try to get them to believe more crap.
Pamela Brown Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., talked about why people start these hoaxes for Psychology Today. She theorized, “If information is a source of power and connections are a source of social capital, then a hoax is a manipulation of social power.” She goes on to assert, “While a hoax may strike some as funny, and there are undoubtedly some instances of funny ones that we might commonly refer to as ‘practical jokes,’ most hoaxes are designed to promote the psychological or commercial interests of the perpetrator at the expense of the victims.”
And that’s why Facebook hoaxes are among the worst lies that you’ll see on the site. They don’t care who they hurt, and they take advantage of everyone in their wake. In most cases, they’re simply a shitty thing to take part in.
6) Trying to convince people how utterly awesome your life is
More than any of the other reasons here, this is the one we’ve almost all been guilty of at some point. Just as Greenfield said that the Internet makes us want everyone to think we’re smart, it also makes us want everyone to think we’re interesting. This is the overlooked reality that van den Born wanted to talk about. But what she maybe didn’t consider going in is how complicit we all are in it.
Reporting on a study for Men’s Health, Markham Heid advocates that we, “Call it the unwritten rule of Facebook: People don’t post pictures about the parts of their lives that suck.” He elaborates, “And while you sit in your boring, old apartment and flip through photos of your buddy’s trip to New Zealand, you may start to wonder why your life is so dull. Turns out you’re not the only one, finds a new study from Utah Valley University.”
Heid continues, “Facebook is all about managing other people’s impressions, the study explains. Past research has shown that Facebook users carefully cultivate profiles that highlight positive attributes and associations, while downplaying or excluding undesirable traits.”
Well, obviously most people want to look their best to the world. But in trying to maintain our carefully controlled lies about ourselves, we can end up perpetuating a vicious cycle. Heid continues: “Staring at everyone else’s happiest times on Facebook gives you the impression that those people are always having a blast, explains study author Grace Chou, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at UVU. As a result, you subconsciously start to believe that everyone is living a cooler, more exciting life than you are—even though you’d probably realize that wasn’t true if you really thought about it.”
But it is in the trying to keep up, trying to make sure our lies about how happy we are match everyone else’s lies about how happy they are, that this can all feel extremely depleting. And that’s why Facebook can be pretty depressing, if you let it.
The key is to separate our carefully groomed Facebook image from what we do in our real lives. Yes, your vacation photos are never going to show the part where you missed your plane, or overslept, or got in a fight with your sister. But what van den Born must know by now is that none of that matters, as long as you aren’t constantly updating your Facebook to the point where you aren’t enjoying the moment.
It’s funny that she had to constantly update her own pictures to prove this to people, even if they were fake. But hey, it was just a few lies, right? No big deal. We’re all trying to prove something whenever we log on Facebook.
A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on Sept. 12, 2014.
Photo via Jörg Bittner Unna/Wikipedia (CC BY SA 3.0) | Remix by Jason Reed