In this weeks latest ONSIDE, Karl Samuel looks into the disturbing world of catfishing.
The Samoan catfish scandal
You probably heard the shocking story of the Samoan football star who became the victim of an elaborate online hoax. If you haven’t, you’ve probably had your head in the sand because the story has absolutely pervaded American television for the past three months. It’s featured on all the major news networks as well as shows like Dr Phil and the Daily Show with John Stewart.
For two and a half years, Manti Te’o, one of America’s most famous and decorated junior footballers, was involved in a romantic online relationship with Lennay Kekua.
Lennay, according to Manti, was the love of his life. But before the pair could meet face to face, it was revealed after a scandalous rollercoaster of events that Lennay Kekua, in fact, had never existed. Even more bizarre and disturbing was the discovery that a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo (also Samoan) had been impersonating Lennay the entire time.
Manti, it appeared, was a victim of catfishing, which is the new phrase associated with someone being tricked into a romantic relationship through an online encounter.
While there’s a new name for it, catfishing, essentially has been going on for years. It’s been happening by email, perhaps since it was invented, but now new social networking sites have turned it into a far more sophisticated operation. Many cases involve crime but others, like this one, simply start with small lies that eventually spiral out of control.
In an interview with Dr. Phil last week, Ronaiah detailed how he managed to create and sustain such an intricate yet artificial reality. He said that after investing so much time and emotion into the hoax he could not bring himself to end it. For him, it was real, and when asked if he was gay he said yes before correcting himself by saying he was confused.
Ronaiah fabricated a whole new identity based on pictures stolen from Facebook. The photos were taken from Dianne Omeira who went to the same high school as Roniah although the two were never friends.
To make his new identity seem more genuine, Roniah contacted Dianne directly through facebook to get more up-to-date photos, asking her to be part of video messages featuring people from their high school showing support for a mutual friend that was very sick.
As their relationship progressed Ronaiah would talk to Manti on the phone by imitating the voice of a woman. The voice was so good that media reports suspected Ronaiah to have a female accomplice, but he dispelled all doubt by performing the voice on the Dr Phil show. Mantai even said that he and “Lennay” often talked so long on the phone that they’d fall asleep to the sound of each others voice.
There’s no disputing Manti as the victim of this story but the all-American linebacker, who was seen as the golden boy of Notre Dame football, only made matters worse for himself by lying to the American public.
In one of their best seasons ever, Notre Dame remained unbeaten in the 2012 season. The team received massive media coverage and no one more so than Manti. Before finals began, Manti’s grandmother, to whom he was very close, passed away, and in a seemingly cruel turn of events his supposed girlfriend, Lennay, died in a car accident not long after.
Media immediately took to the story. Here, was a college football hero whose amazing on-field leadership and individual brilliance was fueled by the grief of losing two of his closest friends.
Indeed, the story was very touching. But Manti slipped up by making it appear that he and Lennay had actually met in person. And when his relationship with her was revealed to be nothing more than an online romance, media and public alike, who showed such sympathy to the ‘Manti Te’o story’, became outraged.
In a further twist, Manti had known all along that “Lennay” was still alive after she (or rather, Ronaiah) contacted him to reveal that she had faked her death. Despite this, Manti continued to go along with the story of her tragic death in a car crash, which was still being told in the media.
Opinions of Manti began to change and it wasn’t long before people began to question his innocence in the whole matter. Some said Manti took advantage of the heartrending narrative only to improve his chances of winning the coveted Heisman Trophy for the best player in college football. Others said he masterminded the whole thing to cover up the fact that he was gay.
And even though Ronniah claimed all wrongdoing as his own, Manti’s delay in being totally honest with the public saw him just as responsible in the eyes of many fans.
This cyber reality created through such an intricate web of lies is all together amazing and disturbing. It just goes to show how social networking becomes treacherous territory when the deceitful crosses paths with the naïve.
The Manti Te’o story is an important reminder for web users to be constantly on guard. What are your thoughts on catfishing and the Manti Te’o scandal?