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Sorting through Lance, Lennay, and ‘love’ in a world of lies

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It’s easier—and maybe more justifiable—to fabricate details of our lives through social media than through actual social interaction.
Illustration: Danny Hellman

Lance Armstrong lied about cheating. Manti Te’o’s girlfriend lied about existing. And according to experts on the psychology of deceit, we’ve all been lying about something every single day since we were toddlers. It’s not exactly a revelation that everybody lies, yet nothing wounds us more, especially when the perpetrator is someone we love.

These days, love can grow from little more than photos, tweets and texts (and maybe an occasional old-fashioned phone call). That describes the bulk of Te’o’s relationship with Lennay Kekua, a digital ghost made of stolen images, false anecdotes and twisted motivations that are still being sorted out. Te’o claims he was totally fooled by his hoax of a soul mate, a scenario that would be laughable were it not for the epidemic of such scenarios revealed by 2010 documentary Catfish and MTV’s hit spinoff, which exposes rampant dishonesty in online relationships. In lower-tech times, insecure daters fabricated details of their lives over dinner. Now, they fabricate entire lives over an Internet connection.

“Research suggests that people lie more frequently on social media and also find it more justifiable to lie,” says Simon Gottschalk, a UNLV sociology professor who studies virtual interactions and the effects of electronic communication on human relationships. Online, he says, the social-psychological rules change because we’re “deaf, mute, blind and out of touch.” Even looking at pictures and messages onscreen, we’re missing the range of 250,000 facial gestures and eight other mediums of communication that help us understand each other face to face. It feels safer, so people get hyper-personal hyper-fast. “There is this idea that it’s a fake kind of authenticity; it’s a fake kind of intimacy,” Gottschalk says. “Those emotions aren’t directed toward a real person but toward a fantasy that the other person helps you construct.”

I would never pretend to be someone I’m not, I reassure myself. But the Erin Ryan on my Facebook page is an edited version of me. Not a lie, but a selective fraction of the truth. Gottschalk says that in such forums, there’s a tendency to “flatten” our idiosyncrasies so we’ll be the most palatable to the widest audience. Maybe catfish start flattening and just can’t stop, until they’ve disappeared completely. The desire for love is that powerful.

“One of the most destructive [computer] viruses ever unleashed on the Internet was code-named ‘Love,’” Gottschalk reflects. “It was one of the most destructive because so many people opened it.”

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Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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