How to Tell if Someone is Lying Online or in a Text Message

We have all been there. Someone saying something online that sounds incredible and everyone (including ourselves) want to believe it is true. However, how can we be sure that someone is telling the truth online, especially about their own experiences (e.g., an anecdote)?

Technically the proper etiquette for online conversations is to believe whatever someone says, until you have a reasonable doubt about their honesty. Unfortunately, experience has taught me it is always best to take everything someone says into question, and verify everything you are told.

You do not know how many times I have failed to verify something, then later discover the information I believed was wrong all along. That is both embarrassing and aggravating, since I may have spent years believing misinformation that “everyone said was true”, instead of doing my own research on the matter. As the saying goes: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before truth can put its shoes on.”

Before I continue, let me say this: There is no 100% reliable way of knowing if someone online is telling the truth or a lie when they give a “personal testimony” about a particular topic, but we can come close by using some critical thinking.

With that, here are a few things to watch out for when someone gives an anecdote online.

  • Lack of personal pronouns
    • When someone is lying, they tend to distance themselves from their story (unconsciously). They achieve this by omitting personal pronouns (e.g., “I”, “me”, “myself”) from their story. While this is not 100% proof someone is lying, it is still a good sign.
    • Think about it. Why would someone who is supposedly giving their own “personal story” omit themselves from the story? That does not make sense, hence why it makes the story look made up.
  • Stories that sound generic / bland / too convenient
    • Usually when someone is making something up, they give basic information …not detailed information. This is because the human brain is “busy” thinking up a story to tell, not about what words should be used to convey the story realistically. This makes the story come across as fake – which it is – and people who pay attention will be suspicious.
    • Ask the poster for more details. If they take too long to respond, or fail to give a response, that is a sign the story is made up (or at least exaggerated).
    • I notice this frequently when listening to supposedly real-life scary stories on YouTube. There are a few stories that I believe are real, but several stories sound made-up under the guise of being genuine. Some YouTube channels have even started to claim the stories are “based on real-life events”, which means not all the facts are legit to begin with.
  • Stories that contain an advertisement
    • This is when someone gives their “experience” about something. However, in the middle (or towards the end) of their message, they advertise a product they are selling.
      • There is a very high chance they are making up their (potentially) interesting story to get you interested in what they have for sale.
      • I saw something similar to this on the Q&A website Quora. Someone asked a question and a guy responded. He gave an interesting “personal” story that even got my attention at first. However, he put a link to a product he was selling that supposedly went with his “personal” story.
        • What is even more interesting (and funny), is that someone else on Quora also had the exact same story and ad the original guy posted, answering the same question.
        • Obviously this was some product multiple people were trying to resell and were just copy & pasting the same ad template multiple times to several different websites (with their affiliate link), hoping to get a few buyers.
  • Does the poster make extraordinary claims in their story?
    • There is a saying: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
    • Anytime someone makes extraordinary claims, they need to provide extraordinary evidence (detailed evidence) to back up the story. Anyone can make anything up online (e.g., “I won big in the stock market, and now I own a million-dollar mansion.”), but without detailed evidence, I would be careful blindly believing such a story.
    • You must be careful of various media given as evidence for someone’s anecdote. This is not to say that no media can be trusted, but today you must be careful what you choose to believe.
      • Audio files can easily be manipulated with little to no evidence of any tampering.
        • Usually the audio’s waveform is analyzed to detect tampering.
        • The problem is a lot of audio is compressed (e.g. mp3 files). This can cause the waveform to change, making it virtually impossible to know for certain that someone purposely modified an audio file, since anything that appears “abnormal” in the waveform could just be due to the audio compression, not someone tampering with it.
        • It is difficult (sometimes impossible) to prove what you are hearing in an audio file is authentic and not manufactured to look real.
          • For example, someone may have “recorded” a conversation of someone plotting to steal a large sum of money. However, the person in the audio is an imposter – someone who sounds just like the person that is being framed. If you were to go based upon what the audio file appears to prove, you would be going after the wrong person the whole time.
      • Photos can easily be changed to “fit the narrative” via Photoshop. I have personally used Photoshop for over 10 years and know this powerful software can be used to make things appear different than what really happened.
      • Video is harder to fake, but possible thanks to deep faking technology. However, a video does not need to be “deep faked” to be false (or at least misrepresented).
        • For example, someone could show video clips from an old World War II documentary, and claim the footage was taken from a joint operation of American and British spies, recording a German base experimenting with space-alien technology.
          • What does the video really show when researched? Just some German outpost on the lookout for Allied aircraft.
          • See what I mean? People can give you real video footage, with real people in it, but the footage itself is misrepresented to show something other than what was really going on. For most viewers, they may be completely unaware they are being lied to.
        • In addition, a video’s title may be inaccurate causing someone to think the video is showing or proving something when that is not the case.
          • This is known as “clickbait”. Clickbait is just someone lying about their content, hoping you will click on it for them to get money via ads that are shown to you.
          • Some clickbait lies are obvious (e.g., nothing in the video matches the thumbnail; this happens a lot on YouTube), and other lies are not so obvious and require attention to detail to be discovered.
  • Multiple inconsistencies
    • Whenever someone gives a story, and there are one or more inconsistencies in the story, this is a good sign the story is not accurate. If something really happened to someone, they would not keep changing the details of the story.
    • It is best to ask the person about the inconsistencies and see what they say. If they get angry, argue, or avoid the question, then you have your answer.
      • I once knew a guy that would tell “epic” stories of himself, but when asked for proof, he would quickly change the subject. Obviously he was making stuff up to get an ego boost.
  • The “I did that too” bandwagon effect
    • This is when someone makes an extraordinary claim, and everyone else suddenly makes the same (or similar) claim too. It is like an “epidemic” of extraordinary claims!
      • I saw this happen once on a health forum. Someone made a huge claim, and then several other people started making similar claims (all on the same forum thread).
        • After about a page or two of people making claims, someone finally posted saying he thought everyone was lying and that what they were doing – if true – would have hurt themselves. Like clockwork, virtually everyone stopped making claims after his post.
        • He called their bluff, especially since I do not recall anyone challenging his accusation. I too believe people were looking to boost their egos, and were willing to lie to strangers online to get that ego boost.

Something to keep in mind. People are not talking face to face when using web forums, instant messaging, posting a comment, etc. That fact tends to make people feel more comfortable exaggerating information – or just plain making up information – about themselves or others in their anecdotes. No one is around to verify their information, much less “punish” them for lying.

This happens a whole lot more on the Internet than people realize, especially if the anecdote someone gives strokes their own ego.


Posted in Computers, General, Internet and Servers, Society