Can anyone be honest online?

From the curated self to cyberphobia and digital empathy

The truth is that everyone lies. On average, we start telling fibs around age four, and it’s actually a positive sign of our development. Effective deceit indicates that we now recognise people have diverse thoughts, beliefs and experiences. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind‘, and a study by Talwar and Lee (2008) revealed that children who lied skillfully displayed advanced theory of mind, refined social interaction skills and higher social cognitive development.

We grow up and ostensibly learn better, yet lying remains a vital instrument in our interpersonal toolkit. We tell little white lies in good faith to manage conflicts, maintain social harmony or mitigate bruised egos. But how does bending the truth translate when we socialise online? 

The internet revolutionised the way that we interact. It connected us to anyone, anywhere and at any time — and in doing so, created a new ecosystem for duplicity. Anonymity, the absence of face-to-face interactions and the ability to craft alternative personas are all fertile ground for deception. Now, the proliferation of deepfake media raises serious concerns around authenticity and trustworthiness online. Can the Internet be a space for honesty, or are we destined to forever navigate a web of lies?

Looking in: performative identity and the curated self

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ In person, we tinker in context, choosing what to share and with whom. Online, the stage is limitless. We are the creators and can transform into whoever we desire.

Our virtual selves are edited, often ruthlessly, refined and rolled out as idealised avatars for public consumption. We prioritise life’s highlights — holidays to far-flung destinations, accolades and accomplishments, hobbies that make us appear more interesting — and ignore the ugly or mundane. We spend hours selecting the best images from our camera rolls, only to upload them as faux-casual photo dumps. We use social media to tell small stories of ourselves, to experiment with our identities and curate our self-image — and somewhere, the boundaries between authenticity and artifice begin to blur. 

But isn’t today the Golden Age of authenticity? Instagram’s polished perfection has given way to a rise in content where keeping it real is king. TikTok’s explosive popularity is the driving force behind this cultural shift, where unfiltered, relatable moments are celebrated. Nielsen discovered that on average, 64% of users across the globe felt they could be their true selves on TikTok. In another study, 56% reported more positive feelings for brands seen on the app, finding these ads more ‘creative’ and ‘original’ compared to other platforms.

Authenticity possesses more purchasing power than ever before, and therein lies the paradox. Influencer marketing is inextricable from contemporary social identity and how we perceive each other online. Early YouTube vloggers like Zoella, Tyler Oakley and Huda Kattan gained massive followings for their relatability. Brand partnerships and sponsorships followed; soon, social media was a commercial space where self-expression could be bought and sold. Take Emma Chamberlain, whose spontaneous vlogs encapsulated the experiences of an entire generation. Five years later, she bought a multi-millionaire dollar mansion in Beverly Hills at just 20 years old.

Social media algorithms have democratised fame, rewarding popular content with visibility and engagement and making stars overnight. Likes, shares and comments are the new social currency — and as users strive for attention and algorithmic approval, a cycle of performance and perception emerges. Like a serpent eating its own tail, what’s viral today becomes the foundation of what’s trending tomorrow; an echo chamber of the same narratives, all competing for acclaim.

As we consume this content, a pervasive awareness emerges. We’re conscious of each other’s curated identities; of our own, and therefore each other’s, deception. Even in spaces where authenticity is celebrated, there’s an unspoken undercurrent of distrust. How much of what we encounter is genuine or simply for show?

Looking out: fake news, deepfakes and cyberphobia

This trust gap transcends social media and is simultaneously informed by it. The Internet disseminates information faster than ever before. We carry libraries in our pockets and can access entire histories in the palm of our hands. With this evolution, mass and interpersonal communication have merged — and the boundaries between official news sources and user-generated content are now blurred. 

In 2022, the Pew Research Centre reported that half of U.S. adults mainly consume news through social media; a habit reflected in many other parts of the world. The problem lies in that UGC rarely adheres to the same rigorous fact-checking or stringent editorial standards as traditional journalism. As we increasingly seek out news on our digital devices, it becomes more difficult to discern fact from fiction. 

The threat of fake news looms large today, particularly in America, where conflicting narratives and disinformation divide the nation. CNN calls the term ‘Donald Trump’s most damaging legacy’, and his vilification of mainstream media is only the tip of the iceberg. A 2022 study by Gallup/Knight found that half of Americans believe national news organisations aim to mislead, misinform and manipulate the public through their reporting. 

This erosion of trust in traditional news turns many to alternative sources that align with their established beliefs. It’s often the same people who fear misinformation that readily consume and believe what they read online. And what they’re fed is an algorithmic-approved diet: the sensational, the emotionally-charged, the content that gains the most engagement.

Convenience and interconnectedness can lead us to overlook the dangers of the digital world. The Internet is ungovernable; a lawless Wild West where anonymity and rampant fake accounts breed deception. Recent statistics from The Independent report that in 2021, Brits were the victims of more cyber crimes than in any other developed country. Phishing tactics are persistent and ever-evolving — and with the advent of AI and deepfake technology, the scale and sophistication of these scams have already reached unprecedented heights.

Take for example The Martin Lewis Money Show. Currently the third-most watched show in Britain, Lewis provides money management tips to an audience of millions. Just last month, a clip of Lewis began circulating on Facebook, endorsing an investment opportunity backed by Elon Musk. The video was soon revealed to be a deepfake, created to capitalise on Lewis’ reputation as a leading expert and the loyalty of those who implicitly trust his advice. Seeing is no longer believing, calling us to question the veracity of everything that we encounter online.

Looking ahead: authenticity, education and digital empathy

So, the question remains — can anyone be honest online? The Internet is a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives, from planning our commutes to paying our bills. The pandemic only cemented its significance as society’s new Third Place — a World Wide Watering Hole that transcends geographic limitations. 

The next generation of the Internet is on the horizon, and now is the time to explore how tech can engender trust rather than infringe upon it. As individuals and as a society, we must work to establish digital environments that prioritise genuine interactions, create and protect safe spaces and foster opportunities for digital empathy and education.

Influencer marketing can and should be more ethical. Brands have a responsibility in helping to close the authenticity gap. Real collaboration goes beyond copy-pasted social copy and failed endorsement attempts. There are plenty of great examples of purpose-led marketing that come to mind. TOMS’ commitment to charitable giving mirrors activist Blair Imani’s advocacy for social justice and inclusivity, making their partnership authentic and effective. Patagonia doesn’t pay their brand ambassadors to promote their products. Instead, these ‘Global Sports Activists’ including Belinda Baggs and Tommy Caldwell all share mutual climate-conscious values. What could be more honest than collaborations that affect real change? 

Education and media literacy play a crucial role in combating online deception. Teaching individuals, especially the younger generation, critical digital thinking skills can empower them to navigate the web more responsibly. There needs to be a cultural shift towards truth-seeking at large; to ensure due diligence, to verify and validate information before sharing it forward. We’ve covered the ways that AI has contributed towards the spread of misinformation — but how can advancing tech be used to detect fake news? UCL’s Professor Bronstein and his colleagues are investigating how fake news spreads in London; in Italy, La Sapienza’s Professor Nucci and his team are building tools to help journalists fact-check with AI. 

Gen Z are at the forefront of virtual, authentic representation and spearheading a culture of honesty online. For these digital natives, their online personas are natural extensions of who they are IRL. This generation displays a desire for meaningful connection, embracing vulnerability and realness over curated, superficial content. The emergence of micro-communities help mobilise support for new causes and create networks for individuals who, just a generation ago, may have grown up feeling isolated and unheard. At their best, social media platforms serve as channels for essential conversations on mental health, body image, societal issues;  they can be soapboxes to share diverse experiences and educate one another.

The next iteration of the Internet could hold the potential for a significantly more honest virtual world. With much talk of decentralised structures and blockchain technology, Web3 promises enhanced data security, transparency, and ownership. Users will have more control over their data, which in turn could diminish the spread of disinformation. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to uphold our integrity online. 

Featured image: Joshua Gandara / Unsplash

Natasha Randhawa, Editor-at-large at MediaCat Magazine

Tash joined the magazine at the start of 2023. Previously she headed comms for The Marketing Society (2018-2022). Now as MediaCat's Editor-at-large, she travels around Southeast Asia, writing about culture, social impact, creativity and technology, and how these forces influence the marketing industry and wider business world.

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