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The Technoethicist: Is lying on social media OK?

On social media, how much exaggeration is too much? The Technoethicist weighs in.

What is acceptable here and what is not? (Photo by Flickr user Jason Howie, used under a Creative Commons license)

The Technoethicist is a regular column addressing tech’s ethical quandaries. Submit a question to and IMA founder Greg Ippolito will offer his thoughtful advice.

Q: Is it wrong to exaggerate on social media? Everybody else does it. — James L., Northern Liberties

Hmm. I’m not sure if this is a question or an argument for the defense. Let’s unpack both.

Is exaggerating on social media wrong?

Most would agree that exaggeration and lying aren’t the same thing, but they’re not that far apart, either. Exaggeration is lying’s first cousin, which makes it suspect.

Psychologist Paul Ekman argued that a lie involves two key factors: (1) intent, and (2) lack of notification of the other person. These two factors are central to exaggeration as well. When you post only your dreamiest vacation photos on Facebook* (after using filters to make them even dreamier), you’re doing that intentionally. And when you leave out the streaming-tears fight you had with your daughter, and the sweaty bout of diarrhea you got from that paella, that’s lack of notification. You’re creating a representation of your vacation that’s not the whole truth; it’s an alternative to the truth, which is, by definition — sorry, Kellyanne — a deception.

*(For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to narrow our scope to Facebook use only. People engage with different social media platforms in different ways for different purposes; the context and content on LinkedIn, for example, is very different than that of Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But since Facebook is the Godfather of Social Media (sorry, Friendster), we’re gonna set our focus there.)

A classic. (Image via Someecards)

A classic. (Image via Someecards)

But is a deception necessarily wrong? Unearthing the whole truth is laborious, and, often, boring. Human beings are natural storytellers. And every story is a highlighting of certain facts and a shadowing (or leaving out) of others. The essence of a story is what really matters. In the case of this hypothetical, you had a great time on vacation and wanted to show it. What harm?

This presents two moral problems. First, that we’re not merely telling a story (or editing down for convenience); we’re creating a narrative that serves us. The unspoken caption on those dreamy photos is: “Look how happy and successful my family is.” That type of narrative has effects on both you and your audience (more on that in a moment).

The second problem is this: Whenever we deal in deception — even soft, “white lie” forms — we threaten the most important element in any relationship: trust. If your best friend should catch wind of your diarrhea night (pun intended), he may laugh at you a bit … then feel bad … then remember those dreamy photos, and feel deceived. And though it’s not a huge deal, and your BFF won’t likely say anything, his trust in you will be damaged.

And, for what?

But, if everyone else is doing it, why can’t you?

Yes, exaggerating one’s happiness and success has become commonplace on social media. And while two wrongs don’t make a right, zillions of wrongs create a normative context. Within that context, if everybody is behaving a certain way, cutting against the grain can make you vulnerable (e.g., if everybody’s vacations look amazing, and yours looks bleh by comparison, you may be judged for it). One could argue that it’s not only OK to exaggerate, but necessary — if only to keep up with the crowd and protect oneself.

This brings to mind the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game theory paradigm that goes something like this:

John and Kate are both arrested for participating in the same crime. They’re locked up in isolation with no means of communicating with one another. The prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to convict them, so he offers each a deal: “If you rat out your partner, you’ll go free and your partner will do three years in prison — provided your partner stays silent. If you rat each other out, we’ll convict you as a pair and you’ll both do two years.” What’s left unsaid is, if they both stay silent, they’ll both go free.

In the case of the hypothetical prisoners, as with real-life Facebook users, there is both benefit and risk in doing “the right thing.” If everyone keeps it on the level, everybody wins. But, human history is a long narrative of a whole lot of people doing the wrong and/or selfish thing.

On the other hand, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that lying, under any circumstance or for any purpose, is morally wrong. This is for two main reasons. First, that our ability to make free, rational choices is one of the most important qualities of being human; therefore, each lie you tell contradicts the very part of you that gives you moral worth. Second, each lie we tell diminishes the freedom of others to know the truth and choose rationally. You can’t be ethical, Kant would argue, if you’re intentionally robbing people of their inherent right to truth for your own purposes.

So, while it seems rational (if less-than-ethical) to exaggerate on Facebook to protect oneself, we have to consider the greater implications. Franz Kafka wrote, “In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.” But Kant might argue that the world isn’t just a thing that is; it’s a malleable framework that we play a part of molding each day via our actions. And what we do on Facebook is no exception.

We should also consider the broader concern that, through this digitized form of exaggeration, we may be directly hurting ourselves and others. Multiple studies have indicated a positive correlation between social media use and depression. This isn’t news. But it raises certain questions. Chief among them:

Does social media use cause depression (in some way), or are depressed people merely drawn to social media in greater numbers? In either case, is it the case that the depressed social media user will exaggerate the details of their life to fight off their negative self-image? Or, are they merely trying to defend themselves against other friends’ posts — and the twinkling, charmed lives they portray — and the embarrassment of what they and their family might look like by comparison?

At its core, maybe this question is all about our motives. Why do we feel this compulsion to exaggerate, to appear better than we are?

Ask the question of yourself: Are you merely doing it to impress others? Because there’s no shame in that. Social status is one of the driving forces in our lives — a fact well-established by psychologists, sociologists and economists alike. Everyone wants to be loved and respected.

The better question is: Are you doing it to protect yourself from the aforementioned embarrassment? To avoid the sense of shame you feel for failing to achieve what others (seemingly) have? When you see your friends’ fancy vacations, cars, homes, careers … when you see the events they’re attending, the successes their kids are enjoying, the suntanned smiles that never seem to leave their faces … these all present as things that you were not able to provide for yourself and your family. They appear as evidence of your failures.

It is critical, then, that we adjust our calculus when it comes to factoring Facebook’s influence on our own self-worth.

For one thing, most of your “friends,” in all likelihood, are people you rarely, if ever, see in real life; people with whom you’d likely have no relationship if not for Facebook itself. Secondly, let’s remember the nature of the context at hand:

Social media platforms are environments where everyone is waist-deep in deception — environments where users are twisting reality into a fun-house mirror, for the chief purpose of looking great in its reflection. So, while what we see there may sometimes hurt us emotionally, we should know, intellectually, that it’s not the truth.

To which we might apply the wisdom of the late, great David Foster Wallace:

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Have a quandary? Need guidance? Looking to settle a bet? Send us your ethical questions:


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