Manti Te’o’s admission that he was duped by a person posing as a woman online has dominated news and social media recently, with commentary ranging from snarky jokes, to accusations that he was in on the hoax, to general bewilderment that anyone could fall for a such a ruse.
If he was not in on the hoax, then Te’o was “catfished”, a term coined from 2010 documentary Catfish. The film followed Nev Schulman, a twentysomething professional photographer who formed a romantic relationship with “Megan” whom he met on Facebook.
At the end of the film it was revealed that Megan was in fact a fabrication of a woman named Angela Wesselman.
To be “catfished” has come to mean becoming romantically involved with someone online, only to discover that they are not who they say they are. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it has become relatively easy to construct completely fictional identities online.
In both Te’o’s and Schulman’s cases, their “catfish” used photographs they obtained from other people’s Facebook pages in order to build their own fake online personas.
However, impersonators often go beyond stealing pictures from Facebook and making an account with a fake name to trick their unwitting victims.
Deadspin, which broke the Manti Te’o story, found the woman whose photos were stolen and used on the Twitter account of Te’o’s fictional girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. The woman, identified only as “Reba”, said that most of the photos were obtained without her knowledge from her Facebook page, with the exception of one. Deadspin describes what happened:
She had taken [the photo] in December 2012 and sent it directly to an old high school acquaintance. The two hadn’t talked since graduation, but the classmate, whom Reba remembered fondly, contacted her on Facebook with a somewhat convoluted request: His cousin had been in a serious car accident, and he had seen her photos before and thought she was pretty. Would she be so kind as to take a picture of herself holding up a sign reading “MSMK,” to put in a slideshow to support the cousin’s recovery? (He didn’t explain what MSMK meant, and Reba still doesn’t know.) Baffled but trusting, Reba made the sign and sent along the photo.
The “MSMK” in question actually referenced the now deleted Twitter handle of the fictional Lennay Kekua. Holding up a handwritten sign with one’s Twitter handle is a technique used often used by celebrities to verify that it is actually them using their Twitter accounts.
Similarly, in Catfish, Wesselman went through the extra effort of creating several fake Facebook accounts for an entire network of family and friends to support the story of the fictional Megan. This included both pictures and detailed conversations between the fake accounts – all run by Angela Wesselman.
“I guess I hope that, since this is a national story, it will hopefully shed some more light and really spark a lot more conversations about what clearly me and [‘Catfish’ co-star] Max [Joseph] already know is a very real, very serious phenomenon that’s taking place,” said Schulman, talking to MTV about the Te’o controversy, “Because, clearly we can see from this example that this is just the beginning.”
Schulman has recently expanded on the Catfish brand with a reality television show on MTV that investigates the identities of people in online relationships – often with dramatic results.
With files from Deadspin.