Deception in the Virtual World: A Semiotic Analysis of Identity

By Jonathan Matusitz (bio)


Drawing on the impact of the Internet on our experience of space and time, and how it shapes our personal identity, this article explores the significance of deception in the virtual world and explains how identity is established in online communities [under the effects of identity deception] and the conditions that give rise to it. Little work has been done on identity formation through the visual interfaces of cyberspace and other web design communities. My purpose here is not only to use semiotics to analyze the web as a communication tool, but also to analyze some of the paradigms of identity that may exist in the virtual world, where online identity makes the Internet the ideal interface environment among human beings all around the world. As such, they feel free to communicate the way they want (i.e., being very expressive, swapping gender, telling lies, reinventing themselves, and so on).


The virtual world, sometimes called the web, cyberspace (first popularized by William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer in 1984), or simply “the Internet” for practical purposes in this article, is both an environment and a complex system—devised and maneuvered for the act of signification to take place. We speak of connected communities, but we tend to forget that the virtual community, a universe made of signs and a paradise for semioticians, has a “semiotic unity” (McHoul, 1996, p. 48) which may be unintelligible to other communities. As in all semiotic systems, the virtual world is a network and an entanglement of icons, indexes, and symbols, with each type of the trichotomy (Peirce, 1931) being contingent on the others, even for its own definition. The term “web” assumes that we locate ourselves not only physically but also socially and symbolically. The physical limitations of geography and body are replaced by the constraints of codes.

Semiotics has been applied to the notion of virtual community as the global network, the unlimited, self-organizing nature of cyberspace, and a phenomenon of “wired identity” (Barrett, 1989; Druckerey, 1996). In communication, to know the identity of those with whom we communicate is a key to the understanding and the evaluation of an interaction. However, like actors on stage (Goffman, 1969), web users are oftentimes performers, deliberately altering their identity. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the Internet is that it has been associated with freedom of self-invention, such as intentional gender swapping. The media also provides a range of stars and icons from whom web users can easily borrow bits and pieces of public persona when communicating in cyberspace. Web users create an imaginary or borrowed self, with an imaginary or borrowed ethnicity, religion, language, civil status, historical affiliation, or lifestyle. Re-imaging/imagining ourselves, what Turkle (1995) calls “reconstruction of self,” through technology seems like an empowering concept. The fact that one’s self can be reinvented in cyberspace suggests that identity is a quality of the human psyche that determines how we reveal ourselves to others. Web users can construct, embody, and reveal any one of a range of possible social identities, depending on the situation.

Drawing on the impact of the Internet on our experience of space and time, and how it shapes our personal identity, this article will now explore the significance of deception in the virtual world and explain how identity is established in online communities [under the effects of identity deception] and the conditions that give rise to it.

Identity in Virtual Communities

Identity, the basic building block for human interaction, is the question of our epoch (or, rather, the sign of our times). Created through the transmission of knowledge and values, through education and society, through celluloid remembrances, and through our own ideals and symbols, identity is viewed as more shifting, fluctuating, mobile, and protean than ever.

As explained earlier, there are more possibilities for a greater variety of identities to emerge in cyberspace. The opportunity for social interaction in virtual communities can create a sense of immersion and engagement different from anything that sensory or motor realism alone can provide (Schiano, 1999). Identity cues are few in the virtual world; they still exist, but in a different way. For instance, people adjust themselves to the nuances of email addresses and signature styles. Virtual reputations are developed and maintained or challenged and blasted. By looking closely at these cues, at how they work and when they fail, we can learn a great deal about how to build vibrant on-line environments. From a semiotic perspective, the difference between the look and the self is important for the construction of identity, taking on a new symbolic form in the virtual world. The idea that virtual identities are divergent from identities in the real world is common sense. Indeed, on the Internet, identity is occupied by an outside beyond itself (Day, 1999), that is, an Other, a “self” online that cannot be denied because the very existence of consciousness in the real world also implies the existence of consciousness in cyberspace, where the self takes on a different meaning and where every identity is represented rather than real. This justifies the existence of Otherness. Otherness dwells in identities and systems – both in their production of meaning and in their interpretation. Identity does not exist without meaning and interpretation, even in cyberspace. Therefore, in order to play the role of the Other, one has to produce meaning and interpretation.

Virtual comes from the Latin vertus (strength, manliness [vir], and virtue). In Middle English, the adjective signified “possessed of certain physical virtues” (Simpson & Weiner, 1989). By modern times, it evolved into “being in essence or effect but not in fact” (Pickett, 2000). The philosopher Michael Heim (1993) defines virtual as a philosophical term meaning “not actually but just as if” (p. 160). Today, virtual is synonymous with effecting something without actually being that something.

The concept of “virtual selves” has been pervading or imbuing identity for more than two millennia. Plato alluded to this characteristic of the technology of books in the Phaedrus and Seventh Letter. Readers can find the writers’ ideas in the form of their “textual selves” (their article or book) without meeting those writers (Hamilton, 1971). Virtual has many signifieds (i.e., non-real, non-existing, or absent) and is seen as part of a bogus or artificial reality, a reproduction of a reality of which we are cognizant. Pierre Levy (1999) in Becoming Virtual proposes the virtual as a process:

In scholastic philosophy the virtual is that which has potential rather than actual existence. The virtual tends toward actualization, without undergoing any form of effective or formal concretization. The tree is virtually present in the seed. Strictly speaking, the virtual should not be compared with the real but the actual, for virtuality and actuality are merely two different ways of being (p. 35).

In line with those contentions, Peirce (1931), the universally acknowledged founder of modern semiotics, places the virtual at the center of his theory of mind, knowledge, and language. He considers knowledge (cognition and thoughts) as a sign. In other words, it constitutes a semiotic gesture that implies a complete philosophy of mind expressed through language. Language is an external sign vehicle that is “hard” (i.e., books, papers, or ink) or “soft” such as the alphabet and mathematical notations (Hartshorne, Weiss, & Burks, 1935). In addition, cognition is thematized as the development of signs, and not as conscious states of mind (Hartshorne, Weiss, & Burks, 1935). Cognition consists in the manipulation of signs that are externally embodied. Therefore, Peirce (1931) believes that the mind is virtual. No actual cognition has any meaning because it is not situated in what is actually thought. Rather, it is located in what this thought may be linked to in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is, as a whole, something virtual.

Expressed in semiotic terms, when dealing with the interaction between humans and machines, individuals are confronted with a compound system of identity, language, and (visual) communication, all of which are part of a web. Goffman describes the web as a medium that represents a separation from previous modes for the presentation of self in everyday life (Goffman, 1969). Geertz adds that the human being is an “animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5).

Space, Time, and Identity: A Semiotic Analysis

Attempts to understand identity as a semiotic phenomenon are driven by an interest in bridging the gap between mind and matter, through the insights gained from scientific and transdisciplinary areas of investigation (Emmeche, 1991). The virtual world is a world of opportunities for intrapersonal and interpersonal semiosis (Noth, 1995) to occur. Given the magnetism and power that the Internet has on our perception and on our semiotic practice, it is obvious that not only identity but also space and time are being modulated in the virtual world. Indeed, the traditional demarcation between image, language, and writing is beginning to move in a radical way. Virtual environments such as the Internet have the power to create identities and enable us to explore very new forms of authorship in a way that expresses emergent meaning. These environments can be navigated, engender new forms of experience, and be modified or radically restructured. As Peirce (1931) puts it, meaning is that which the sign conveys. The volume of virtual environment is then quantitatively different, constructing a new space. Consequently, identity begins to fluctuate or, more accurately, to float in that new space. As a matter of fact, one of the unique qualities of the virtual environment is that it enables the web user to have a more free-floating experience of perception. In the virtual world, he or she might choose to occupy various positions that would not be possible within actual space, where the individual’s identity has a physical component.

Since the 1960s, deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida have been talking about changes in our ideas of space and time. While human beings spend most of their time in real life, where the basic concepts for understanding reality—space, time, and identity—do not change, virtual reality is another space where people spend their time. Cyberspace helps drive individuals to cross the spatial divide, putting an end to geography. Web users are only a mouse click away from servers in Belgium or Australia. For Cairncross (1997), this means the death of distance… and of time. Cyberspace makes nonsensical the distance and the time between subject and object that is necessary to be defined as space. The world, then, composed of information rather than matter, becomes virtual in that it takes the place of real life; the essence, the form, and the composition of reality become different. By creating a virtual space and fostering in our minds new conceptions of space, by denying any physics of spatiality, any presence—even the presence of absence—the Internet does not just extend geometry but as Mitchell (1995) suggests:

The Net negates geometry; it is fundamentally and profoundly antispatial. It is nothing like the Piazza Navona or Copley Square. You cannot say where it is or describe its memorable shape and proportions or tell a stranger how to get there. But you can find things in it without knowing where they are. The Net is ambient-nowhere in particular and everywhere at once (p. 8).

Cyberspace has no center and takes the form of a self-organizing system when its elements are in order. In terms of semiotic function, as we encounter virtual spaces, we experience a continuous, time-based junction of symbolic meaning forces. Thus, text in cyberspace presents one field of symbolic meaning force that can only be understood contextually in relation to other adjacent forces. Consequently, it is evident that our spatio-temporal ways of worldmaking (Goodman, 1978) and conceiving the world are not a flexible and uniform system. The environment for human construction of identity is created far more by semiotic systems that are historically and contextually contingent, as well as culturally divergent.

In line with those contentions, space and time, Derrida (1976) says, are not forms of intuition theoretically underlying the system of empirical signs. They are far more the effects of a grammatologically distinct and explainable structure. To quote Derrida: “The origin of the experience of space and time, this writing of difference, this fabric of the trace, permits the difference between space and time to be articulated, to appear as such, in the unity of an experience” (Derrida, 1976, p. 86). By the same token, the concepts of present, past, and future—the metaphysical concept of time in general – cannot adequately describe the structure of the trace (Derrida, 1976). This postmodern train of thought has an important semiotic value here. Indeed, communication on the Internet, especially using hypertext (as opposed to printed text), a type of writing that can be read nonsequentially, seems to indicate the end of linear writing. This type of writing, as Derrida suggests, implies a new idea of space thanks to the browsing of texts in an orderly but nonsequential manner. The point made is that new kinds of writing and the growth of a virtual environment make it hard to accept the Cartesian concept of space as a universal truth (Gaukorger, 1995).

Thus, with these new forms of space and time, specifically in reference to cyberspace, a provocative model through which to consider the process of identity is presented. The flow of identity begins to converge under the sign of the virtual environment. We enter the nature of the real that enables the virtual, and, instead of printed matter, we have recombinant energy processes or flows. Identity then becomes a flux or, as Rheingold (1998) suggests, a “fluid” (p. 84) in the sense that we take a fluid role in the construction of identity through different levels and qualities of interaction. Fluidity implies that something can be manipulated on the whims of its creator; it also implies fragmentation, a term of postmodern identity construction. While modernist conceptions of the self are based on the ideal of a stable, unchanging identity, post-modernism sees identity as continuously being reconstructed (Deibert, 1997). In other words, in the construction of virtual identities, the disembodied world of the Internet and cyberspace seems to be a symbol of postmodernism, where many of the basic cues to personality and the social roles we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent. As a result, individuals lose their consistency, and their real lives suffer because they are living a lie and suspect that those with whom they communicate are also guilty of deception. In a similar vein, individuals are in contact with people from different cultures and with people they have met only as virtual constructs. Consequently, by interacting beyond the stigma of real life, it is difficult to determine how identity is to be projected; likewise, the online medium has the potential to become a deceptive social space where individuals become victims of malevolent acts. The next two sections of this article focus solely on deception in the virtual world and how it impacts the concept of identity.

Semiotic Perspective on Deception

Deception is part of life and the Internet is just a new, powerful, cunning semiotic tool for its practice. Deception is defined as “the act of deceiving” (Collins English Dictionary, 5th Edition 2000), that is, the act of hiding the real and showing the false. It is also the deliberate change of identity to promote a desired outcome or to reach an end, a personal objective. In “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare,” Umberto Eco claimed that “the battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives” (Eco, 1986, p. 142). The definition of deception places emphasis on a second party that is involved, where the web user is consciously trying to create deception in order to promote a desired outcome. Therefore, the definition does not include self-deception, the act of deluding oneself by creating illusory ideas, or one’s intention to use mental models to interpret things in an individual way.

Virtual is not real. Many forms of identity deception in cyberspace are acts of omission, rather than commission; they involve a sort of concealment. Identity in cyberspace, then, presents itself as a material symbol. Symbols as conventional signs have the ability to be phony and to deceive us. According to Umberto Eco (1976) the underlying nature of human semiotics is the ability to lie. The study of identity deception is congruous with the theory of communication because the notion of sign itself has been defined in semiotics in relation to deception. “Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used ‘to tell’ at all” (Eco, 1976, p. 60). In the same perspective, the ability to tell a lie by changing one’s identity is often taken as the distinctive paradigm for the semiotic character of an activity (Eco, 1976). If lying is not possible, what goes on is not a sign process, but a causal process.

We have seen that everything that presents itself as a material symbol is necessarily subject to the suspicion that it is phony and that we are dealing with a deception. The word “phony” originates from the use of the telephone and reflects our concerns about the authenticity or realness of communication over the electronic equipment. The Internet extends the implications of phone technology and reintroduces the problem of phony communication, and, if online life is phony, it also is deceptive. On the Internet, no one knows that the web user is a nymphomaniac, a neo-nazi, or a killer. This is to be expected in a world that promotes the creation of identity and the intrusion of another’s imagined reality. While artificial identities can be damaging to both individuals and to groups, they can also be inoffensive, benefiting the web user without injuring the community. Some are pure deceptions, intended to provide a false impression. This is particularly evident when a virtual identity is slandered because hurtful remarks may not reach the person behind the “mask.” Others are more astute, skillful identity manipulations, similar to the adjustments in self-presentation we make in many real-world situations.

Identity in the Virtual World: Deception or Plurality of Selves?

Masks and non-disclosures of identity are part of the grammar of cyberspace. Deception on the Internet, however, is not always acknowledged as such, by the receiver or the sender of the message. Philosophers like Turkle (1997) argue that human beings are not deceptive on-line if only because they do not really become someone else (what they actually do is split their identities into real life and on-line parts. An individual’s identity, she contends, “is the sum of his or her distributed presence” (p. 1101). The self no longer simply plays different roles in different settings. Rather, the self exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time (Turkle, 1997).

Having multiple identities in cyberspace is not a deception but extends the range of selves that are available. People self-fashion and self-create. They “are able to build a self by cycling through many selves” (Turkle, 1995, p. 178). From this critical perspective, there is an extension rather than a different order of existence because identity is “something complex and decentered” (Turkle, 1995, p. 20), as well as dispersed and multiplied in continuous instability (Poster, 1990). This is why we should talk about “alterity” instead of difference. The belief that individuals are unitary is itself an illusion (Turkle, 1997). The author extends her argument against deceptive identities on the Internet by describing the reality of virtual life:

The idea that you are constituted by and through language is not an abstract idea if you’re confronted with the necessity of creating a character in a MUD. You just do it. Your words are your deeds, your words are your body. And you feel these word-deeds quite viscerally (p. 307).

This idea of the multiplicity of identities – and, by the same token, non-deception in the virtual world—is rooted in Roland Barthes (1977) when he claims that “a text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (p. 146). “A text’s unity,” he continues, “lies not in its origin but in its destination” (p. 148), which is, of course, multiple. Consequently, the “author,” whether in the physical or virtual world, is but an amalgamation of other people and other ideas. In the same train of thought, Foucault puts forward the idea of a second self and assures a “plurality of egos” (1981, p. 130) when he asserts that:

It is well known that in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localization refer directly to the writer, either to the time when he wrote, or to the specific act of writing; rather, they stand for a “second self” whose similarity to the author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the course of a single book (p. 129).

In line with these contentions, Deleuze (1995) argues that the virtual has its own world and its own reality. While the possible is opposed to the real, the virtual is not.

It possesses a full reality by itself. Cyberspace, in imagining a spaceless, timeless, and bodiless presence, “is not so much a parallel to the real world as an increasingly significant dimension within it” (McRae, 1997, p. 73). Magic becomes real. In fact, the very definition of “real” becomes “that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 146).

We understand that virtual reality becomes real life and the actions done by the web user are taken just as seriously as real life actions. This is a throwback to Barthes’s Mythologies (1972), where the French cultural theorist argues that myth appears as meaningful reality created by humans who are aware of the complexity of reality at a given point in the evolution of their culture and their society. Virtual reality, then, “has become so immediate that what constitutes the real is called into question” (McRae, 1997, p. 74). Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: “Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this . . .” (Barthes, 1972, p. 109). Myth is not true or false, but living or dead. Its power is not based on its ability to reflect reality, nor does it depend on what a positivist may judge to be real. A myth is alive if it continues to provide meaning to human life, if it maintains important parts of the collective mentality of a given age, and if it continues to render socially and intellectually tolerable what would otherwise be experienced as incongruity. In this respect, the Internet is one of the master myths of our time and myth is at the heart of things (MacIntyre, 1985).

From all this, we may conclude that the boundaries between the virtual and the real are blurred, that cyberspace is a myth with its own reality and its own place (or “space”). Myth symbolizes the relationships among human beings and “real” multiple identities. In doing so, myth establishes a rapport between communication and understanding. As Barthes (1972) puts it so nicely, from the beginning, myth is a communication system and a message.

However, other philosophers do not make a distinction between the virtual and the real (hearkening John Lennon’s refrain, “nothing is real,” from Strawberry Fields Forever). For instance, Jacques Lacan has shown us that human identity is always virtual, an effect of shifting subject positions (Miller, 1993), an effect of maintained space, a function of metaphor, where the name is an illusory unified symbol. In 1793, David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, already posited subjectivity and identity as fictions. Expressed in semiotic terms, the virtual is then a symbolic circuit, an imaginary structure. Cyberspace simulates the real in the space of metaphor; it becomes the space of the Symbolic in the Lacanian sense, where individuals meet and speak (voicelessly, however). The accessibility of the Real is what the virtual claims to give.

From this perspective, it can be said that no web subjects exist “in real” since web subjects are only attributes named by users. The web user becomes a symbol, a virtual subject of a virtual world that is nevertheless always linked to a body. Deceptive identities can, thus, be formed. Likewise, while myth puts forward the notion that there is a single truth, it ignores deception. This leads us to believe that identity change does not exist; it also hides the fact that the significance of reality depends on human beings’ grids of perception and interpretation. More importantly, the myth of cyberspace fosters the idea that communication is limited to those who know Net language (more specifically, “netiquettes”) and that deceivers cannot be caught unless we know the language.

Myth, the product of an essential function of the human mind, obscures the fact that communication is composed primarily of the basic tenets of semiotics: verbal and nonverbal language (talk, feelings, gestures, voice tones, faces, style of dress, etc.). We can, thus, follow the lead of Carl Jung (1976) when he says that myth is not only a source of oppression, but also a source of ignorance and deception. It promotes incomprehension and rigidifies our system of thinking. Carl Jung’s symbolic system plays a crucial role here, sparking discussions regarding semiotic codes.

Countering Turkle, in cyberspace we do not have multiple selves, but only one self, one identity that is mutilated and disintegrated into conventional signs. Indeed, as we communicate on the Internet, we have to decompose ourselves as a collection of signs in order to send a message. This collection of signs may either express aspects of one’s personality or be a complete fabrication. For Eco the self is a sign in the same way that ordinary words are signs. When using signs, symbols, icons, or emoticons, we rely on the mutual intelligibility of the output and we are inspired by the familiar “semiotic landscape” (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 15).

Semiotics, therefore, is a good tool to view cyberspace as a sign-vehicle for which the main function is to be perceived and interpreted by some group of users, and not to be considered as an inflexible Truth. By looking at identity as a body decomposed into conventional signs and by corroborating the idea that deception on the Internet truly occurs, semiotics of cyberspace mediates “a change of intellectual epoch and culture as profound and total as was the separating of medieval from ancient Greek times, or the separating of modern times from the medieval Latin era” (Deely, 1990, p. 17).


In this article, I have attempted to explain ways of constituting and concealing individual selves, and to explain how identities merge and how the subject condition in cyberspace is fulfilled. Little work has been done on identity formation through the visual interfaces of cyberspace and other web design communities; my purpose here was not only to use semiotics to analyze the web as a communication tool but also to analyze semiotically some of the paradigms of identity that may exist in the virtual world, where online identity makes the Internet the ideal interface environment among human beings all around the world. Identity in cyberspace, as we have seen, is not just defined; it is also made complex, composed of a collection of signs. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the Internet, history’s largest human artifact, has contributed to both developing and destabilizing representations of identity, increasing the materials available, their accessibility, and opportunities for deception.

Similarly, I attempted to demonstrate that the virtual world is not “real,” though it has a relationship to the real, corporeal, bodily, physical, material, tangible world. Semiotics, after all, is a point of view and a way of looking at the world (Deely 1990). Since semiotics requires that we reflect on all our ways of understanding and communicating, and since anything functions as a sign that may or may not bring forth a response from us, semiotics can examine, interpret, and deal with any type of universe, of “space.”

For future research, I suggest that semioticians continue present work (e.g., studying and drawing new conclusions from the virtual world, examining the phenomenon of identity deception, and understanding identity as a semiotically conceived sense of coherence) and further expand the approach to these lines of inquiry by (1) asking where the semiotic self is located in cyberspace and by (2) describing and making sense of relationships among web users. Finally, it would be fruitful to use semiotic inquiry as an approach that is sensitive to the unique aspects of “cybertalk,” since in text-based virtual worlds identity is constituted through signs such as emoticons and language. As philosophers Wittgenstein (1958) and Austin (1962) put it, language is constitutive rather than representational. Hopefully, with time, semiotics will establish a solid theoretical framework to accommodate the full range of possibilities for understanding the complicated notion of identity.


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