It was the kind of story that transcended sports, the kind that made it to morning talk shows and elderly relatives. Did you hear about the football star from Notre Dame whose girlfriend and grandmother died within hours of each other?
As we now know, it also was the kind of story that wasn’t true. A story that, as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said recently, involved a particularly current, and bizarre, form of online trickery called catfishing.
The story, as we best now know, is that Notre Dame star linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o, whose story of overcoming the tragic deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend just hours apart became national news, was only half true. The girlfriend, whom he had apparently never met in person, existed only online – in what Te’o referred to in a statement as a sick joke perpetrated by one or more of his acquaintances.
How could Te’o fall in love with a woman he had never met? How could a woman that he told Sports Illustrated he has known for four years – and dated for a year – not exist? Wouldn’t he have visited her at least after her car accident, after her leukemia diagnosis, while she lay hospitalized?
All questions that drive the movie and TV show Catfish, which seeks to explore the world of romantic entanglements with fake online personas.
The term Catfish was coined in the documentary of the same name that premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The movie solves the mystery of Nev Schulman’s online romance with the young and beautiful Megan – later discovered to be a creation of a lonely mother, living out fantasies of what her life could have been. After the movie, it felt like everyone on the Internet wanted to tell me about their bizarre online romance, said Schulman, who now hosts a Catfish reality TV show on MTV.
I think we’re right at this cultural moment where people are starting to realize how much of this is going on, said Montana Miller, a professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. What’s so shocking for people to realize is that this is a widespread thing, it could happen to someone I know. It could happen to a football player I admire.
In her class on Internet communities, Miller and her students discuss Catfish in the context of greater themes in online interaction. They try to pick apart what is reality in a relationship involving a fake identity and real emotions. They also discuss whether the Internet encourages people to lie or whether it just provides a venue for people who already lean toward deception.
The most fascinating part of each Catfish episode is the revealing of the actual identity of the pretender – and why they’ve chosen to create an alternate persona. There’s always a good reason why someone is turning to a fake Internet identity, Miller said. Usually there’s some underlying pathology behind it.
So a gay man who wishes he were a woman poses as one to strike up risqué online relationships with young men. A man uses high-school photos and Facebook to hide the fact that he is 600 pounds.
You project what you want to be, who you want to be with, said Schulman on a recent episode.
Miller’s students also wonder about the motives of the person being scammed. She notes that the strategies that Schulman uses to expose the pretender are usually fairly rudimentary.
Why don’t regular people take that initiative? Why do they prefer to be passively in denial, sometimes for years, not wanting to look any further below the surface?
Indeed, the Deadspin.com article that broke the story of Te’o’s girlfriend hoax questioned whether Te’o might have been in on it, for reasons unknown – a charge that Swarbrick dismissed in his Notre Dame news conference.
The term catfish, according to the movie, is named for the practice of putting catfish in a tank of languid cod to make the cod more active. A catfish, says a character in the movie, spices up life for those around them.
What drives participation in social media generally might also help drive the catfish phenomenon, said Andrew Stephen, an assistant professor at the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.
Stephen has done research on what motivates people to tweet, and has found that seeking attention is a big driver for people participating in social media.
It’s largely related to some form of doing it to get attention, to increase one’s status and have people be interested in you, he said. They want to get attention in ways other than they would get it in their normal regular lives.