The internet is a web of lies.

That's according to new research looking at online honesty, which found that "online deception is the rule, not the exception."

Dan Misener — CBC Radio's ever-truthful technology columnist — looks at how and why we lie online.

What did the researchers want to find out?

This research — published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour — was conducted by a team of researchers who were interested in online honesty. As they put it, they wanted to find out "whether or not people are depicting their true selves online."

Researchers wanted to know about our own honesty — but also how truthful we believe others are. So they looked at this question across a few different types of websites:

  • Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
  • Online dating sites like Match.com and Tinder
  • Anonymous chat rooms 
  • And what they call "sexual communication websites."

They wanted to know if the type of website makes a difference — not just in how much we lie online, but how much we expect others to lie online.

And yes, the researchers did acknowledge that measuring dishonesty is tricky business.

What kinds of lies are we talking about?

Michelle Drouin is a psychology professor at Indiana University Purdue Fort Wayne, and was one of the authors of the new research.

Dr. Michelle Drouin

Dr. Michelle Drouin was one of the authors of the new research on online honesty. She says people are most honest on social media sites because they have the most links to the outside world. (drmichelledrouin.com)

She said people reported lying about all kinds of things — their age, their gender, their appearance, activities and interests.

Of the different types of sites they measured, people were most likely to be honest on social media sites like Facebook. Nearly 32 per cent of people said they were "always honest" on social media.

"The reason for this is because these social media sites, we posited, have the most links to the outside world," said Drouin.

"It's a lot harder to lie about your gender or your age, for example, when you have pictures of yourself, pictures of your family, and most importantly, shared acquaintances."

People were a little less honest on dating sites and less honest still on anonymous chat sites. People were the least likely to be honest on "sexual communication" websites like Craigslist's casual encounters.

What about our expectations of others' honesty online?

The short answer is that our expectations about others' honesty tend to mirror our beliefs about our own honesty. In other words, on sites where we believe we're being honest, we're more likely to expect honesty from others.

Ashley Madison Hack 20150720

People were the least likely to be honest on "sexual communication" websites — like Ashley Madison and Craigslist's 'casual encounters' section. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

But across the board, our expectations of others' honesty were pretty low. Between 55 and 90 per cent of participants in the study believed that others were lying at least some of the time about their age, gender, activities, interests and appearance.

The most commonly expected lie is appearance — 90 per cent of participants expected others to lie about what they look like.

But perhaps most fascinating about this study is its finding that our expectations of other people's honesty influences our own honesty — when we think other people are lying online, we're more likely to lie ourselves.

Does this study explain why people are dishonest?

According to Drouin, most people reported lying online in order to make themselves appear better.

"They wanted to be cooler. They wanted to be more beautiful. They wanted to be sexier. They wanted to give an appearance of a life that was better than the life that they were leading," she said.

But there were other reasons too.

"Others said that they lied because they just thought everyone lies online. This is the place where lying is standard."

Why is it important to understand online deception?

If we have a better understanding of dishonesty online — and the degree to which other people expect dishonesty online — we can be less naive in our online interactions. 

But there may be something deeper at work here. Research suggests there's a difference between the lies we tell face-to-face, and the lies we tell online. Face-to-face lies are often spontaneous, whereas online lines can require more planning. They're more calculated.

Much of our understanding about human relationships is based on studying face-to-face interactions in the physical world. But as more and more aspects of our lives move online, it's important to understand how the medium itself can impact our relationships — especially when we consider that we have a generation of people who are growing up in a world where most socializing happens on the internet.

And if lying and deception is the default behaviour, Drouin thinks it could be having a profound effect on trust in relationships — and that's something worth better understanding.