Lies and Half Truths on Social Media

We know not everything we read on the internet is true. How can we tell what is?

Posted Feb 21, 2020

“I’m trying to teach my kids that things that they see on ads—online and on TV—often aren’t what the advertisers make them out to be,” said Louisa*, adding that her 4- and 8-year-old daughters “watch far more TV and YouTube than they should.”

“But it’s hard,” she said. “They don’t have the ability to screen out people’s motivations for selling—that this is advertising, not truth—and they can’t yet see that some of these wonderful looking toys are pieces of junk.”

In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Ashley Fetters similarly notes that “adults can easily tell that online personalities are hawking products that companies have sent to them for free. But that’s not as clear to kids, who are less familiar with the ways in which advertisers grab their attention and translate it into profit.”

But even adults can’t always separate truth from fiction on the internet, on social media, or in the news (consider all of the accusations of “Fake News” from both sides of the political spectrum).  

For example, Mona*, a client in her thirties, spent an entire session talking about her friend Sue, who had moved away and was posting pictures of a beautifully landscaped house in the country, filled with gorgeous furniture. She had also posted pictures of fun-looking gatherings with neighbors, backyard barbecues with children and pets. Besides missing her friend, Mona was struggling with feelings of shame and guilt that she was envious of the life she was now living. “She’s got everything I’ve ever wanted,” Mona told me. “I should be happy for her. And I am. But I’m also feeling how much I’d like all of that.”

In therapy, one of the hardest tasks anyone has to take on is becoming comfortable with and forgiving themselves for some of the ugly and or unattractive feelings that are part of being human. Most of the time the point of acknowledging these feelings is not so that you can share them with the person they’re directed at (although sometimes sharing is useful), but so that you can own them and manage them and by doing so maybe even eventually let them go. Therapists have found that paradoxically the more you fight those feelings, the harder it is to let go of them. 

As Mona began to talk about and become more comfortable with her own feelings, I asked her if she had any idea why her friend might be posting these pictures. “Because she wants us all to see how wonderful her life is,” she said. “Maybe because she wants us to suffer!!!” 

I asked if she could tell me why she posts some of the pictures she posts?

“Well, I like to share things with my friends—funny things, good things, you know. But I also like people to see me doing things they’d admire or want to do themselves…oh…hunh…” she said. “I have a social media presence—a social media self. Are you saying maybe that’s what my friend’s doing? Creating the self she wants to present to the world? Is she lying about what she’s doing or what her life is like?” 

Social media selves are everywhere. They may be lies, but they are often exaggerations—even more often, a matter of putting up only part of the truth, usually the healthiest, most attractive sides of our lives and ourselves.  

Clearly, it is not just children who have to learn that what we see on the Internet is not necessarily the whole truth—or even partially true.

Even quotes that seem totally believable from famous people are not always the truth. I learned this myself when a reader sent me a note that I had fallen victim to a fake quote from the popular "science communicator," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that had made its way around the Internet. 

According to Mashable, “A YouTube channel that pokes fun at Reddit successfully pulled a viral prank using a quote and Neil deGrasse Tyson as bait. The idea was to test the skepticism of Internet users, and the results might make you think twice about sharing a quote photograph before fact-checking it.”

The quote seemed perfectly in sync with other things that I had read by deGrasse Tyson, so it didn't occur to me to double-check it. But according to the Mashable site, that was the point. 

“The made-up quote is about accepting fact when it's reassured by a notable person, or suits preferred world views—regardless of whether it's true,” says the Mashable site. 

In this case, nothing worse than my own embarrassment came from believing the false quote; but there are times when feelings can be hurt, self-esteem damaged, and laws even broken when we uncritically accept everything we see and read on the Internet. 

123RF stock photo sunabesyou
Source: 123RF stock photo sunabesyou

So Louisa was right to think about how she would teach her children not to believe that everything on the Internet is true. The tricky part is helping them understand that being a little skeptical is good while also helping them learn the importance of truthfulness for their own well-being and also for the well-being of their relationships with others. 

My Psychology Today colleague Alex Lickerman says that on the one hand, not lying leads "to a remarkably stress-reduced life," since we never have to worry about remembering what we've said or covering up when we're caught. And while he seems to agree with what I've written about lies that can protect someone from hurt or danger, he also agrees that telling the truth makes for much better feelings about ourselves and connections with others, who will know that they can trust us.

This is a philosophy worth teaching to our children.

And the next time you see something that a friend, acquaintance (or anyone else) writes or posts about themselves, you might also want to be a slight bit cynical before you take it for complete fact. 

*names and identifying information changed for privacy