Chapter Seven: The Internet

VI. Deception On The Internet

One of the characteristics of the Internet that most worries critics of its influence on young people is that fact that you don't know who you are talking to. In fact, deception is nothing new among humans, and we are well equipped to deal with it.

Deception is widely described among proto-social groupings of animals (eg monkeys) but it doesn't seem to have adverse consequences for the social position of the individual until the group acquires more sophistication. It is one weapon among many, that is all. But once the group starts to have internal organisation, and individuals have knowledge of each other's characteristics (roughly coeval with the use of language and the increase in brain size that led to the emergence of homo sapiens) then deception, if practised in the group, is rapidly noticed and punished by expulsion or withdrawal of group benefits (grooming, access to females, inclusion in trade).

This is not to say that deception disappears from the range of human behaviours because of groups; of course not. What changes is that reputation acquires a positive value, and it can be lost by aberrant behaviour (aberrant from group norms). Reputation management is prime among the social skills which people developed in early group social environments.

One of the main results of the use of complex linguistic interaction among group members is indeed the use of gossip to build or damage reputation. Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby2: 'Gossip from an anthropological perspective is a means of social control, a sanction that forces one to adhere more closely to social norms than one would otherwise be inclined. Reputation is determined by gossip, and the casual conversations of others affect one's relative standing and one's acceptability as a mate or as a partner in social exchange.'

As the group becomes larger, deception becomes easier to practice again, because you can't know everybody in a settled community of 3,000 individuals, with the difference that it has become established as wrong – because it is hurtful to the group. The groupish instinct or nature of the individual has many dimensions, and the wrongness of deception is one of them.

Chris Knight3 summarizing Desalles4 asks why it is that within human coalitions status is earned through the efforts of the individual to display and acquire information, whereas in ape society it may be earned more effectively by manipulation or concealment of relevant information? For Desalles, the answer is that in the human group ownership of information has replaced physical strength as the most important currency. In an ape troop you hardly need a reputation for strength; you are strong or you are not. In a human group, there is no physical attribute that says you are wealthy in information, hence the need for reputation.

Trivers5 points out that individuals can move between groups as a result of social factors, for instance an individual engaging in much deception can be expelled, or a cooperator can choose to leave a group which permits too much deception. Nick Emler6 argues that much of our daily use of language is in fact concerned with reputation management.

A growing body of opinion links deception as practised by humans with self-deception, itself closely associated with the psychological mechanism of repression. Randolph M Nesse and Alan T Lloyd1 review a wide range of research on this subject, concluding that the capacity for self-deception may offer a selective advantage by enhancing the ability to deceive others. Quoting Alexander and Trivers, the authors propose that a person who consciously believes what is being said to be true is more likely to convince others. If evolution goes to such lengths to encourage deception, then it obviously was adaptive. But it is not nearly so adaptive in a co-operative group, which has therefore had to develop mechanisms to prevent or discourage it.

On the Internet, deception already takes many forms. We may include viruses, spam and impersonation as deceptive behaviour. They are getting so bad that some people give up the Internet as a bad job; but really it is just a kind of Black Death situation. Viruses, as in animals, have given rise to antibodies (patches or the equivalent) and doctors (Norton, etc). Some of the remedies are even called Doctor this or Doctor that. It is perhaps a bit early to say that viruses have been defeated; they never will be, either in people or in computers. But the vigilant, prepared individual (computer) should be able to defeat them in almost all cases.

Spam is 'free-loading' run riot. It is a kind of stealing, of the power of other people's computers, and of their time taken to sort through the incoming e-mails. Its effectivess in economic terms (for the sender) is wholly based on anonymity and the costless borrowing (stealing) of data and computer power, and loss of anonymity will rapidly prevent it. It is a special case of impersonation, in fact. The issue is how to deprive people on the Internet of the capacity to impersonate others, or at least to make impersonation so difficult to achieve, so easy to discover, and so costly when discovered, that there is no incentive to do it.

In human evolution this was achieved as regards deception by the emergence of groups, or more accurately, it was a by-product of the emergence of groups, viewed from a positive aspect of the development of individual reputation as a kind of badge of okayness. Technologically, it would not be that difficult to make the e-mail process completely transparent on the Internet, but the resulting loss of confidentiality and the extra powers given to regulators would make such a solution unacceptable to most people. Spam filters are a partial solution, but are very imperfect and are perhaps only a stop-gap measure. The solution may come instead from some kind of positive, associative process, in which a combination of certification, encryption and individual reputation will allow safe e-mail communication within groups of individuals, and between conforming groups, and indeed this is beginning to happen through 'social' media such as Facebook. Identity theft would still be possible, but it would be easily detected and traced.


1 Nesse, R M (1992) The Evolution of Psychodynamic Mechanisms, in The Adapted Mind, ed J H Barkow, L Cosmides and J Tooby, pp 601-624, OUP, New York

2 Barkow, J H, Cosmides, L, and Tooby, J, (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, OUP, New York

3 Knight, C (2000) The Evolution of Cooperative Communication, in The Evolutionary Emergence of Language, ed Knight, C, Studdert-Kennedy, M and Hurford, J R, CUP, UK

4 Dessalles, J-L (2000) Language and Hominid Politics, in The Evolutionary Emergence of Language, ed Knight, C, Studdert-Kennedy, M and Hurford, J R, CUP, UK

5 Trivers, R (2002) Natural Selection and Social Theory; Selected Papers of Rovert Trivers, OUP, New York

6 Emler, N (1990) A Social Psychology of Reputations, European Journal of Social Psychology, I, pp 171-93