Geek Ethicist: Love’s Liars Online

Geek Ethicist

“Dear Ethicist–

What’s wrong with “sculpting” the truth on online dating sites? Women get breast implants, which is essentially false advertising (or “falsies advertising”) but men fall for that. So what’s the harm in shaving off a few years from your age or adjusting your photo on a dating site? I mean, sometimes no one will give you a chance until you do these things. And in real life people go on first dates and lie about all kinds of stuff from where they live to how many cats they have. What do you think?

Sign Me–
Looking for Results”

Dear Looking,

In a word, nothing.  Nothing is wrong with “sculpting the truth” so long as no one has actually been deceived.  Paradoxically, some socially expected sorts of lying are not really dishonest, but actually required.  “Well sorry, gotta go.”  But real lying requires intentionally co-opting someone else’s ability to make a decision by giving them misleading information.  “Loan me ten bucks I promise I’ll pay you back.”  “No, I’m not married.”  Other sorts of lying are just downright pathetic.  Lying on online dating sites falls into this final category.  Because, let’s be honest about lying on online dating sites, sooner or later the falsies always come off.  And if what is exposed is entirely unexpected, that’s probably going to be a very embarrassing last date.

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On online dating sites it is generally accepted that everyone will lie appropriately, but only very little.  According to research by Jeff Hancock of Cornell University, surprisingly, people are generally more honest online and in email than in person.  We tend only to tell little forgivable lies in online dating sites:  Men will round up their height to the next inch — 5’9 plus even an iota becomes 5’10” — but rarely more than that, and women tend to lie slightly about their age, and everyone lies a little about their weight.  And this small amount of lying makes perfect sense, since when the coffee date finally comes, if what shows up is a brazen falsifier, unrecognizable by her given description, well that is a certainly going to be deal breaker.

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According to the Rules of the Internet  30, “There are no girls on the internet.”  As a Nerdfighter female friend recently explained to me, this doesn’t just mean every member of every anonymous online love chat room, is really an overweight sweaty old bald man with gray stubble, it also means if you happen to be female online you cannot play the girl card, ever.  “Omergerd! I am totally gonna kill you on EverQuest even though I am a cute girl, cuz I am a really tough Dark Elf! Grrrlz are very tough and gnarly too.” Fail.

Which leads to the colossal cringe-worthy fail of pathetic football star Manti Te’o:  A fake dead girlfriend?  Talk about “falsies!”  The whole bit from falsie girlfriend through falsie leukemia to falsie death, sounds like a guy creating a falsie “beard”  for himself with a “catfishing” scheme.  As more comes out it seems pretty well certain the whole thing was concocted as much by Te’o himself  as by his “falsie” friends. His fake girlfriend dying of fake cancer while he fakes emotional strength sounds pathetically like a super fake macho guy embarrassed by some very real carnal problems with women of flesh.  “See Mormon Mom and Dad?  I really do have a girlfriend, really.  And I would have loved for you to meet her… but…  (tears, sighs and courage) she died.

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Still this entire fabricated hoax is really the exception when it comes to online lying.  In fact, as it turns out, the real lying machine is the telephone.  We scarcely pick one up without starting to lie.   But we all recognize these lies as part of telephone culture.  “Gotta go something came up.” That’s almost always a lie.  And even though we all know it’s a lie, we usually appreciate that fabricated pleasantry over the brutal truth: “Now you’re boring me to death so I’m hanging up.”


Emily Cantin researched, co-authored and created original artwork for this article.

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