What are the ethical implications of an online persona that is radically removed from your real persona? Is it ethical to create an online persona that is inconsistent with the social or professional identities you have in real life? The short answer is no. Conscious misrepresentation of oneself in any way shape or form violates ethical standards of truth and moral constancy.
However, the question requires an additional consideration: what harm does this ethical manhandling cause? For the purposes of this essay, let us accept that a fabricated online persona remains ethically unsound, as we consider the social harm this causes, namely, the perpetuation of crippling social stigmas, and the erosion of social trust.
Freedom reigns online. Ordinary social constraints drop. As Professor John Suler explains, “the opportunity to be physically invisible” online frees participants to experiment socially, in what’s known in psychological discussions as the Disinhibition effect (Suler 1). “People don’t have to worry about how they look or…about how others look or sound in response to what they say.
Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express” (Suler 1). Not so online. Anonymity creates a distance and “a form of altered ethical sensitivity, wherein digital objects are not perceived as real objects and, at the moral level, people judge them differently” (Capri and Gorsky 58).
The motivations to deceive online often stem from self-esteem issues (Capri and Gorsky 54). People whose authentic social identities limit or trap them often “play with their identity online” (Capri and Gorsky 58). Deceptions in these cases still fall under the purview of ethical violation, however, are they harmful?
Is it not more ethically suspect to deny an “unpopular, overweight, non-athletic, and unattractive” man or woman the opportunity to live a more socially fulfilling life through an “avatar…more self confident and self-contained” than his or her real self? (Capri and Gorsky 54)
The answer is no. The harm here roots much deeper than social ostracization. Online deception may offer a temporary means to escape social “loser” status, however, long term, it upholds the belief that these very same unattractive sorts have no value as they are, and must engineer an identity in order to acquire attention, social recognition, and even love.
The ultimate forum for online deception remains the online dating world; however, one difference bears scrutiny: online dating culminates in a face to face to meeting, and the pressure of this inevitable “reveal” tends to restrain deception. “Online representations of one’s ideal self—when combined with the increased accountability engendered by an anticipated face-to-face interaction—may serve as a tool to enable individuals to minimize the discrepancy between their actual and their ideal selves” (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs 15)
However, the same problem applies. Online daters who deceive understand themselves as not good enough, and this understanding prompts them to embellish. They cannot trust that they deserve love, as they are.
At this point in the discussion, let us turn our attention to the issue of “diminished trust” that online deception propagates (Johnson 64). Deborah Johnson cites a case wherein “women in an online discussion group…discovered that a participant whom they believed to be an older single woman confined to a wheelchair was in reality a male psychiatrist in his 30s…
We might view this simply as a case of deception, but that would miss an important component…some might say the women who participated in the forum were…naive to assume that anyone online is who they claim to be.
This response is disturbing, for it suggests that we must give up trust altogether when it comes to online communication” (Johnson 64). Online deception kills trust, and breeds a brand of cynicism that further alienates us from one another. The ethical violation in this instance creates the negative belief in online communities that no safe place exists, a belief which invariably extends to the real world.
Suler suggests that “people may feel that the imaginary characters they “create” exist in a different space, that one’s online persona, along with the online others, live in an make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world…Once they turn off the computer and return to their daily routine, they believe they can leave behind that game and their game identity” (Suler 3). This is not the case at all. Online deception is not innocuous, and it does not limit itself to the cyber world.
The perpetuation of online deception has a very real and negative impact on real life social relationships, because those who engage in online deception do so because they believe that it is impossible for them to acquire what they want, be it love, attention, fulfillment, understanding, joy, or simply an engaged and sympathetic ear, unless they pretend to be someone other than who they are. Online deception thus perpetuates self deception, and this is its most ethically poisonous legacy.
Caspi, Avner and Paul Gorsky. “Online Deception: Prevalence, Motivation, and Emotion.” Cyber Psychology and Behavior. 9:1 (2006): 54-59. Web. 24 November 2010.
Ellison, Nicole, Rebecca Heino, and Jennifer Gibbs. “Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11.2 (2006): 1-24. Web. 24 November 2010.
Johnson, Deborah G. “Ethics Online.” Communications of the ACM. 40.1 (1997): 60-65. Web. 24 November 2010.
Suler, John. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” Cyber Psychology and Behavior 7:3 (2004): 1-7. Web. 24 November 2010