01/20/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2013

Social Media Con Artists

If you ever meet me in person, you can easily make me laugh in an inappropriate manner. Simply state that you find technical things like computers to be "more complicated" than people. Even typing that sentence forces an involuntary chuckle out of me as I try not to laugh at my own private joke. At its core, a computer is just a device that rapidly adds simple number symbols together. Even the most expensive computer can't do multiplication directly! Ask Siri what is 3 x 3 and she sends a message over the Internet to a server at WolframAlpha which then runs a program that adds up 3 + 3 + 3 to get 9. Which, by the way, has got to be the world's most expensive way to multiply ever invented as it involves speech recognition, speech synthesis, wireless networks, cloud computing, and state-of-the-art computer hardware and software.

(Please, only ask Siri really hard questions! We don't want to waste all that computing power on trivia!)

It's the natural things, specially of the human sort, that are complicated. This week Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o are superb examples of what seems to me to be inscrutable complexity that only humans can manufacture. I cannot begin to guess at their motives, ability to fool or be fooled, and media manipulation skills. Lance and Manti do illustrate an important conundrum with modern computer-based technology that we all face at some level in our lives -- even if we try to be honest in all that we blog or tweet and be reasonably suspicious of every message read on Facebook and in the comments section of HuffPost.

I still remember the world without personal computers, the Internet, search, or social media. Back then when we didn't know something we just made stuff up. "Who played Johnny Fontane in the movie The Godfather?" I remember specifically pretending I knew the answer with such conviction that everyone around me agreed it was Dean Martin and not Al Martino (I had to look up the real actor's name in IMDb). It's fun to be Borat. It's fun to be seen as the smart guy in the room. It's human nature to figure out how to be the center of attention.

These days everyone is a fact-checker, ready at the drop of a hat to whip out their phones and verify the key part of an argument. At this point, I prefer not to check all the facts at parties and while waiting for a show to start. Sometimes, computer-assisted accuracy spoils the moment.

While it's getting tougher and tougher to be a causal bullshit artist, it's seems social media has made it easier to be a con artist. In his excellent book, On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt argues that while liars admit to themselves that they are lying, bullshitters lose sight of what is true and what is fantasy. This might be what happened to James Frey, JT Leroy, Manti Te'o, and Lance Armstrong. Using Twitter, Facebook, and good old fashioned television and newspapers, these con artists fooled themselves while fooling the rest of us.

There are many measures that social media sites and applications can take to help us recognize fraud and I'm surprised that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are not already doing them:

  1. Put a little badge on profiles less than a month or two old
  2. Put digital watermarks on all images posted by users
  3. Display the original source of an image (based on its digital watermark) in search results
  4. Indicate when two or more accounts controlled by the same person are messaging you simultaneously.
  5. Keep an archive of deleted accounts for public consumption.
  6. Don't let any posts or messages be deleted -- ever. (That will help with drunk posting and rage tweeting as well.)

I understand why Lance Armstrong felt he needed to dope. I don't understand why he needed to lie (and tweet) with such conviction that I believed in him, even when, looking back on it, it's pretty clear that you can't win the Tour de France seven times while battling cancer without a little help.

I understand why Manti Te'o needed to have a great story to tell so he could build a great "brand." I don't understand why he needed a fake social media girlfriend to do it. What a way to wreck a career!

I don't know if Manti Te'o was played or a player (or some combination between) but technology should make it easier for human beings to navigate the world of social media without being hoodwinked. Until better controls are put into place I suggest we remember that any story too good to be true in a tweet or Facebook post, probably is.