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Image: Dan Page

As a former King County prosecutor, Nelson Lee has seen some disturbing crimes. But he couldn’t help but wince this summer when he heard about a scam pulled on nearly 100 University of Washington students from China. Not only did each student lose thousands of dollars in tuition money, but the alleged perpetrators were also Chinese. “As someone who is Chinese myself, that is particularly upsetting,” says Lee, who now has a private practice. “We should be looking out for one another and making the transition to the United States easier, not more difficult.”

Almost as damaging as the scam itself, though, was the psychological toll it took on the victims. Most had been contacted via a Chinese social networking platform by someone purporting to be a recent UW graduate and the founder of an organization that helps foreign students adjust to campus life. The organization would act as an intermediary, transferring funds for tuition—and in some cases room and board—from the marks to the university. It even offered a 5 percent discount. But, of course, the money never made it to the UW. And the students were left wondering who they could trust. When Lee approached to offer his services pro bono, in some cases the victims were justifiably wary. “They thought this was just another opportunity to be ripped off,” he says.

Honestly who can blame them? If you’ve spent any time online in the last, oh, 20 years, you may have noticed that truth and fiction are locked in a never-ending steel-cage death match. And most of the fiction isn’t nearly as obvious as an incarcerated Nigerian prince who needs $10,000 to buy his way to freedom so he can send you a lifetime supply of male enhancement pills. It’s the “viral” video that was actually an ad for an energy drink or the guy you met on Tinder whose photos were 10 years old, or the crowdfunding campaign for a cancer victim who doesn’t actually have cancer. So if one large Internet scam can breed paranoia in a bunch of innocent 18-year-olds, what are all of those daily microdeceptions doing to the rest of us?

The truth (should you choose to believe it) is that no one knows for sure. But there are some clues, starting with the fact that deception wasn’t born on the Internet. “We are lied to all the time in our offline lives,” says Robert Feldman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Think little white lies like “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat.”) And that daily exposure to dishonesty has worn us down, making us strangely more accepting of being misled. “It’s exhausting to always wonder whether you’re hearing the truth,” Feldman says.

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From left: Nelson Lee, attorney; Robert Feldman, professor of psychological and brain sciences; Tim Levine, professor of communication studies; Michael Tsikerdekis, assistant professor of information communication technology

Complicating things is our natural inclination to believe. That’s the basis of a concept called truth bias: If presented with a statement and asked if it’s true or false, more often than not, we’ll choose true. (Which may explain why test takers are more likely to choose true in true-false questions.) Tim Levine, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama has taken that idea one step further to establish a concept he calls truth default: In the absence of any suggestion that something might be false, we will overwhelmingly assume it’s true. His research bears that out: Participants in one study—who didn’t know that its subject was deception—interacted face to face with research assistants who told them a variety of truths and lies. And in less than 1 percent of those interactions did the subjects consider that they were being deceived.

Unfortunately even if we are more suspicious, we kind of suck at identifying dishonesty. “Suspicion puts pressure on the deceiver, but it won’t affect your ability to detect a lie,” says Michael Tsikerdekis, an assistant professor of information communication technology at the University of Kentucky. “Information and time, though, can increase your chances.” Yet those are two resources that, for many, are in short supply. It’s hard enough to find time to drop off the kids at day care, put in a full day’s work, pick up the dry cleaning, and make dinner. Do we really want to spend time researching that kid selling candy bars door to door to see if his charity actually exists? No. We want to eat the candy bar.

There’s another more nebulous component to all of this. The idea of community is predicated upon trusting others. “Humans are social and need to interact with one another,” says Levine. “If you don’t trust anybody, you can’t have any close relationships. Things would crumble pretty quickly.” 

That’s not to say skepticism is inherently bad. In strictly evolutionary terms, Better safe than sorry can serve us well. And if the black hole of BS that is the Internet has made us more skeptical—though there are no studies to suggest it has—well, that’s not necessarily bad either. “You’re going to understand people better” if you take time to separate truth from fiction, says UMass’s Feldman. The secret, as always, is moderation. “Be selective,” Levine says. “Know when to have your guard up.” Like when you get an unsolicited email from someone you don’t know, offering you a deal on tuition that sounds too good to be true.

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