Are People Lying To You Online? How To Tell

by Pamela J. Hobart

So much of our lives have now moved online for better or for worse — job-seeking, chatting with friends, dating — and there's probably no rolling these changes back now. While online communications are often useful and positive, it's no secret that the Internet is also full of liars, manipulators, and scam artists. Fortunately, though, you can learn to become better at telling whether someone is lying, even in written communications and online.

First, realize that people have a "truth bias" — a general tendency to believe rather than disbelieve what they're told. This helps us to get along with each other in ordinary circumstances, which would be much more difficult if everyone were questioning everyone else and demanding evidence for minor claims. But truth bias works against us when it causes us to believe claims that are implausible on their faces and/or that clearly serve someone we don't know's interests a little too well. You probably want to believe that the hottie's impressive online dating profile is accurate, or that your remote coworker really is on top of his or her assignments.

Many of the tips for detecting lying that we've previously heard help only when we see or hear someone speak: repeating phrases, giving shorter answers, and hesitating. These "tells" indicate someone might be lying because generating a lie is cognitively more demanding than merely reporting the truth, so they're working harder at communicating than you'd otherwise expect. But online, these tips don't hold up so well, because liars can use time and energy to cover their tracks better when communications occur in writing.

With that background in mind, here are some tips specifically for determining whether someone is likely to be lying to you online:

  1. Notice what the person is emphasizing, with colorful or repetitive language. They probably really want you to think that thing is true.
  2. Watch for "distance" the writer creates, as "by omitting personal pronouns and references to himself from a story."
  3. Be vigilant regarding any questions you ask that the respondent allows to go unanswered — he or she probably didn't want to answer them, for some reason or another.
  4. Non-committal statements help writers to avoid a technical lie, so they are often red flags: "maybe," "probably," "pretty sure," etc.
  5. Liars may shift back and forth between the past and present tenses, as they switch between reporting facts and creatively re-imagining a story.

If someone's online story doesn't sit well in your gut (despite truth bias!) or doesn't add up factually, try a phone or Skype call, or face-to-face meeting for work contexts (if possible). It can go a long way towards quieting your overactive intuitions or confirming that something shady is going on.