Jeff Hancock thinks you’re a liar. But not in some awful you’re-a-terrible-person sort of way. The cognitive science and communication professor from Cornell simply thinks we use lies to manage our relationships respectfully during a time when we’re constantly connected. In this digital age, people have access to us 24/7 via our phones, social media, email, and so on. We tell little fibs like, “Sorry, my battery was dead. I didn’t see your call till now,” as a way to keep our relationships in tact without offending our friends and family. Just because you didn’t feel like talking to a person at one point doesn’t mean you want the entire relationship to end.
But there are some forms of digital deception Hancock is worried about: things like online reviews. In China, the Chinese Water Army is a group of people which are paid to write positive content about businesses and the government. But this idea is not foreign — even Walt Whitman was known to write fake reviews of his work. And today, we have lots of businesses who falsify testimonials and ratings (aka “astroturfing”) as a way to drive more customers to their place.
Hancock is fighting against this though. With a little help from his computer science colleagues Hancock is developing an algorithm which can spot fake reviews online. The algorithm uses findings from a long list of studies which have found that things like too much use of the first person singular (e.g. “I” and “me”), high verb and adverb use, and overly positive emotion (e.g. “!”) are commonplace in falsified reviews.
Despite all this though, Hancock still thinks the Internet is a very honest place and describes how social media and online dating profiles are more accurate than we may think. He just wants to make it more honest.