Since Deadspin reported that the dead girlfriend of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o was a giant hoax, the term catfish has popped up again and again. As Slate’s Josh Voorhees explains, a catfish, in this sense, is someone who has created a fake social media persona through Facebook or Twitter (or some other online means) in order to deceive (and typically to seduce).
Te’o issued a statement shortly after the story broke proclaiming that he was the victim of a “sick joke” and was under the impression that he was carrying on a legitimate online relationship with the woman he never met, “Lennay Kekua.” (According to Deadspin, the two began corresponding as far back as late 2011, via Twitter.) Some believe his story; Notre Dame has expressed support for his version of events. Others, though, wonder: How could anyone possibly believe that he didn’t know what was going on?
For such credulity, perhaps we can credit (or blame) the movie Catfish and the MTV show it inspired. Both appear to demonstrate that some people are in fact capable of maintaining—for extended periods of time—relationships just like the one involving the football star. In each episode, filmmaker Nev Schulman—the man who was duped in the film—helps someone who has been in an online relationship for a while without ever meeting the person on the other side of the computer. In one particularly egregious instance, a couple had been chatting for a decade. (Though one of them, Kim, did date other people in real-life as well.) In some cases, the two have talked on the phone, but other than Facebook, email, and dubious photos of their lover, they have had no visual contact.
It’s easy to feel very superior while watching the show. How can this moderately attractive guy who lives on a farm possibly think that this supposed model is really in love with him? When a woman claims that she can’t afford a phone—even though she can somehow afford the computer that she’s using to chat online—why does that guy not feel even slightly suspicious?
Schulman and his onscreen filming buddy Max Joseph ask all of these questions as they go along. And when you finally get to the bottom of a particular case, you see the reasons their subjects are so willing to look past the bright red flags: loneliness, insecurity, and, perhaps, a misplaced faith in the power of “love.”
If you’ve never seen Catfish, Te’o’s story reeks of insincerity and incredible implausibility. But if you have, you might hesitate to label him a con man and see him, instead, as simply remarkably gullible. “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” he said yesterday. That’s exactly how the lonely guys and girls on Catfish whose shapely blonde lovers turn out to be depressed gay men or teenaged girls, always feel at the end.
Of course, when watching the show, one does sometimes wonder about how faithful it is to reality. How does Schulman get the mysterious subjects to agree to meet with their other halves via a simple phone call? When the documentary premiered, it was criticized as fake, or at the very least disingenuous about the truth of Schulman’s relationship. (The filmmakers have insisted it was completely real.)
Schulman was contacted via Twitter by someone who was supposedly Kekua’s sister (and wasn't) some time ago, and the filmmaker has launched his own Te’o investigation. In his latest tweet on the saga, he states that two people—one of them mentioned in the Deadspin profile as a “family friend” of Te’o, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo—knew about the hoax all along. But it’s still unclear whether Te’o himself was knowingly involved. He did gain considerable sympathy and attention from the story. And that story seems to have changed over time, with earlier accounts about how he first met Kekua at Stanford giving way to an admission that he’s never been in physical contact with her.
No matter how you look at it, Te’o doesn’t come out looking good: Either he’s naïve and lacks social skills or he’s a pathological liar. But, on one level, at least, he is not alone.