The uproar over Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend hoax is certainly a commentary on how Internet anonymity ironically can breed trust, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the sorts of Internet pretenders, or “catfish,” who lurk in the turbid depths of digital waters.
The outcome of the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax is far from conclusive, with questions still remaining if Mr. Te’o was either perpetrator or a victim (or, perhaps, both) of an elaborate, complex and multi-character fraud in which both his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and his grandmother died on the same day last September. The tragic tale became integral to the star linebacker’s public story ahead of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) title game.
But as the Internet site Deadspin discovered, nothing about “Lennay Kekua” was true, despite numerous heart-wrenching stories written about her “death” as part of the pre-BCS hagiographies for Te’o, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
“Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest. Lennay Kekua’s last words to Manti Te’o were not ‘I love you,’ ” Deadspin reported.
In fact, the girlfriend Te’o said he had visited never existed. Instead her identity has been tied to a male acquaintance named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old band leader at a church in Antelope Valley, Calif., and a member of a prominent NFL football family.
Mr. Tuiasosopo at one point had the picture used by the Lennay “catfish,” which turned out to be a photo of a classmate who had nothing to do with the fraud. When confronted about using the image, BuzzFeed reports, Tuiasosopo “acted weird” and the picture disappeared off the Internet.
On Friday, ESPN quoted an unnamed friend of Te’o as saying that Tuiasosopo tearfully confessed to the hoax in early December, saying that at first he was just playing a “game” on Te’o but also acknowledging he had engaged in catfishing before.
According to ESPN, the friend, a woman in her mid-20s, said Tuiasosopo told her that Te’o “was not involved at all, he was a victim.”
On Wednesday, Te’o expressed his “incredible embarrassment” and called it a hoax, though he had continued to talk about Kennau as his girlfriend even after he informed the university that he had been a victim of fraud.
Those willing to exploit the vulnerable goodwill of others have always been hanging around the fringes of society, of course, but the social media age has given the practice a different and disturbing spin: It’s as if the very anonymity of the Internet morphs into a tendency toward faith in other people.
“There is a widespread sense, perhaps untrue, that people can be most ‘real’ when they are most hidden – that all of us are Cyranos who can only speak our true minds when our faces and names are invisible. It’s a lovely notion … [but] it makes us oblivious to flaming red flags,” the Washington Post’s Monica Hesse wrote Thursday.
According to the National Consumers League, Internet “catfish” hoaxes, which the organization calls “friendship & sweetheart swindles,” ranked seventh in frequency among all fraud last year.
The phenomenon is widespread and intriguing enough that it’s spawned a TV show called “Catfish: The TV Show,” which in itself is a spinoff of a film documentary where a normal guy looking for love sought out an Internet girlfriend only to find she was a middle-aged mom. On one episode of “Catfish: The TV Show,” a woman finds out her online boyfriend is really another woman.
The co-hosts of the show, Nev Schulman and and Max Joseph, say they’ve received thousands of e-mails, letters and pleas from around the world since the release of the movie “Catfish” in 2010 in which Mr. Schulman was targeted, suggesting that such hoaxes are pervasive, though certainly not always as complex and elaborate as the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax.
According to Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, Te’o was in contact with “Kekua’s” family, including a twin brother and her parents, whom he apparently called regularly.
And there are still open questions about Te’o’s role in the hoax. While Notre Dame’s official timeline of what happened notes that Te’o figured out his girlfriend was fake on Dec. 6, he talked about her in a Dec. 8 interview with a TV station, and again in a Dec. 11 newspaper interview.
"There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don't know how many people they represent," Mr. Swarbrick said at a news conference this week. "There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, a mother, and we don't know if it's two people playing multiple characters or multiple people."
"It goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through," he added. "There were lengthy, long telephone conversations. There was sleeping with the phone on connected to each other. The issue of who it is, who's playing what role, what's real, and what's not here is a more complex question than I can get into."
As to Te’o’s statements that he had met the girlfriend, Swarbrick said Te’o “was referring to an online meeting. He responded to an online inquiry. That was the first time he met her. And as part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed, including some in Hawaii.”
Mr. Joseph of “Catfish: The TV Show” suggested in a USA Today interview that Te’o, a talented young football player thrust into the big media spotlight, may have been drawn to an online-only relationship which he then “compartmentalized” from his life. “You’re talking to someone in privacy,” Joseph said. “They become this kind of isolated person for you to trust – it becomes easy to talk to them and they’re always there.”
As for the “catfish,” he or she may have been drawn by the lure of fame and “sense of control and power,” suggests Lucy Papillon, a clinical psychologist, in an interview with MTV.com.