Can the Internet Actually Make Us More Honest?

Social media exposes deceit with viral social accountability.

Posted Oct 27, 2015

Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock
Source: Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock

Newflash: YouTube “celebrities” Sam and Nia might be pregnant again. This is a couple who have been so successful documenting daily "family life led by Christian values" (their description, not mine) that Sam quit his job as a nurse and is now focusing on YouTube full time. Troublesome shift of professional resources aside, Sam and Nia are now dependent on getting eyeballs to watch their saga.  What if real life isn't interesting enough?   A rapid cycling of a pregnancy, a miscarriage, and another pregnancy following on the heels of disclosures that Sam had an account on the illicit affair site Ashley Madison, their fans are starting to think they might not be telling the truth.  Views have plummeted from the high of 15 million on the first pregnancy video down to under 200,000.  And where views go, revenues follows.

"Fake it 'til you make it" may be a good strategy for getting over anxiety before a meeting, but it's NOT a good strategy when you're selling authenticity on YouTube.  The Internet is powerful--it can propel an unknown into YouTube celebrity with thousands of viewers overnight, but with celebrity comes scrutiny. Those same eyes will be looking through a magnifying lens.  Social media relationships operate with the same rules as offline ones.  They are social contracts that thrive on honesty and are destroyed by deceit.  There’s an important lesson in all this.  New media does a lot of things.  One of them is that it makes it hard to keep secrets a secret.  Think of that as making people accountable for their behavior.

Parents frequently worry that the media is teaching their kids to behave more dishonestly.  There are lots of things in the headlines to fuel that concern. The news is full of people—even trusted figured of authority--who are caught lying and cheating, not to mention bending the rules.  It’s not surprising that stories of people misbehaving get more ink (or whatever we say now). The news survives on sensational stories to get people’s attention which means they focus on the negative and often exaggerate or misreport events. 

But parents take heart:  All the negative media stories and events provide powerful teaching moments that you can use to help your kids understand the importance of critical thinking, decision making and personal integrity.

It’s easy to think that the media is promoting a culture where lying is normal and even expected in order to be important, accepted to or get ahead.  The media continually reports on various aspects of bad behavior in society and there is a lot of potential for dishonest behaviors online.  People can assume fake identities, say mean things anonymously, let impulse override reason and tell outright lies.  

People worry so much about the dishonesty of online activities that we have names for them.  For example, a cyberbully is someone who bullies in cyberspace.  A sock puppet is an online identity created to mislead someone, whether it’s pretending to be someone you aren’t, ‘ballot stuffing’ online polls, posting positive reviews for your book on Amazon or trashing a competitor on Yelp.  Astroturfing is the practice of masking sponsors of a cause, organization or message to make it appear as if it is a grassroots movement to increase credibility. In China, they have a version of astroturfing called a shuijun or ‘water army’ that is the manipulation of “word-of-mouth” advertising and the creation of slam campaigns in online reviews and posts by paid posters in the service of a PR firm or advertiser.

The problem, however, is not the media.  Honesty is about people.  We lose sight of the fact that for every opportunity to be dishonest online, there are as many offline.  A lot more people may see or hear about dishonest behavior online, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals of what creates deceit.

We may be distracted by the visibility of dishonesty enabled by the Internet and social media, but social connectivity has created a level of transparency that can also make media an arbiter for truth and honesty more than deception

The Internet has two really important qualities: information and activities are high visible and evidence is permanent. 

When examples of bad behavior show up online or in the media, parents have excellent opportunities to teach important lessons with multiple benefits. Using examples in the media makes it less immediately personal and therefore, less threatening.  Using examples in the media, no matter whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, email or the Internet, raises children’s media literacy, critical thinking and decision making skills, better preparing them for the world they have to navigate.

The media demonstrates how the consequences of dishonesty, complicity and deceit are extensive—interpersonally and economically. As many a politician, executive and journalist has discovered, it’s very difficult to hide untruths these days and the evidence doesn’t disappear, as it did in pre-technology times. Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory says that seeing the consequences of observed behaviors is a key feature of their impact. The news outlets may call our attention to transgressions, but the outlets and citizens alike pursue the outcome and often demand justice.

Media mediates relationships, it doesn’t deny them. Roles online or in broadcast media imply social contracts. If your role is fictional, that’s one thing. But if you’re presenting as a trusted source, beware the Internet as the great equalizer. Dishonesty destroys trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships whether they are interpersonal or professional. Ask Brian Williams. When news correspondent Williams was found to be lying about his activities in Iraq, it didn’t stop there. It called into question all the dramatic stories he told in his career. Where the network might have been willing to overlook or whitewash his discretions, the public was not, effectively ending his career as a serious journalist. For all the good work an organization like Invisible Children might due, the attention generated by KONY2012 also opened their accounting records to public scrutiny.

It may surprise people to learn that research shows that the Internet actually makes people more honest. People often point out that you can be “anybody” online. But it doesn’t work that way. 

Everything in life is ultimately about relationships. Social media and the Internet are no different. They are about relationships and, like offline, relationships are the things that matter most. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you’re doing, whether it’s meeting someone at a dating site, finding a new job or connecting with friends. All social interactions are based on relationships and relationships are built on trust. 

What's the best way to teach your kids to be honest? 

  1. Talk with your kids about how much you value honesty and give them examples of how honesty in essential to trust. Use examples in the media of how people behave to start conversations about what you admire and help them speculate about what the consequences of certain behaviors can be. Be willing to listen as much as you talk.
  2. Make it safe for your kids to talk with you about behaviors so they can explore what it means to be honest. If you explode or punish at any sign of dishonesty, you are shutting down the avenues of communication that let you teach the real lessons. 
  3. Show your kids how to be honest by being honest yourself. If you continually cut corners, tell “little white lies,” or cheat on your taxes, then you are teaching your children to be dishonest no matter what comes out of your mouth.

Honesty isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. Honesty creates trust, the foundation of meaningful relationships. Relationships enable our professional success, personal happiness and physical health. Our kids are growing up in a rapidly changing and complex, technology-filled world. Check out They have brought together a powerful team of passionate experts to support their mission of empowering kids through understanding, recognizing and practicing honesty. Full disclosure: I'm proud to be part of the effort.