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Catfish

I confess, I am addicted to MTV’s reality show, Catfish.  I recently read that before hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph are able to read a single word from the victim of a potential Catfish, the production staff does extensive homework on all involved parties, which includes verification of the story, obtaining signed releases, and often requesting that the person being Catfished write a letter to Nev and Max asking for their help.  This is done because the majority of the people who contact MTV are the Catfish themselves, likely looking to finally come clean, which explains why their first words are almost always an apology.  Almost always.

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Catfish has gotten quite heavy in its third season.  While Nev has always been the calm voice of reason with Max occasionally losing patience and having to take a breather, we have seen Nev become seriously heated and angry at the people who have been hiding behind a false persona.  On the episode featuring Kidd Cole, who has scammed thousands of dollars out of who knows how many people, Nev became so angry at Cole’s lack of empathy with his latest victim that he threw Cole’s phone into a river.  Producers on-site have had to step in multiple times to calm Nev and Max down because, in their words, they are in danger of sabotaging their own show unless they get their emotions in check.  But honestly, who can blame them?

To my knowledge, I have never been Catfished, but I feel very confident that it has happened to me at least once during my life online.  Like most people nowadays, I’ve formed numerous friendships with people I’ve met online but never been able to see in person or video chat with.  I even met my husband online, although he was thankfully very real and never once hid behind any online falsehood.  I have friendships with people on Twitter that I still have yet to meet in person.  I’ve had brief interactions with people I assume are celebrities on a verified account that could in fact be just a random employee of that public figure.  Every single day, I find myself in some sort of contact with a person that could be someone very different from who I assume they are.

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The idea of Catfishing someone is hardly a new concept though, just one that has only recently been thrown into a spotlight.  Back when I was eleven and my AOL access was limited to an hour of glorious dial-up per week, I can recall spending the majority of that hour in various chat rooms made for my age group.  I quickly noticed that unlike the real world, each chat room would have a huge number of tall blond cheerleaders and ruggedly handsome football players.  The older I got, the bigger the lies became.  A slight exaggeration on physical appearance became outright lies that took hundreds of pounds off of bodies, changed genders and orientations, shaved off decades from a person’s age, and allowed anyone to have whatever career and financial status they wanted.  The joke became that any and all lesbian chat rooms were actually nothing but 30 – 50 year old men talking dirty to one another.

You would think that the more we see liars and cheats exposed online, and the more we see how easily one person can become someone else entirely via the internet, the more cautious we would all become.  Nev and Max’s investigations on Catfish are reduced from hours into minutes, but their work gives us more than a few tricks that can easily be used to verify someone’s identity.  The last episode of Catfish featured a tech-savvy guy who didn’t do his homework out of respect for the girl he thought he was talking to, but surely our own safety is more important that an imagined slight against a stranger.  I just popped my photo into a Google image search and scared myself a bit at how accurate the results were.  Lying is easy, but exposing those lies is easier.

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In addition to being cautious, we need to be smart.  Giving some random stranger online your full trust is beyond stupid.  People who wouldn’t trust some of their own family will put all of their faith into a person from Facebook that they’ve never met.  It’s mind-boggling.  Stopping for a moment and being rational rather than emotional could work to save a lot of people from a lot of heartache.  In the case of recent Catfish, Kidd Cole, it could have saved people a lot of money had they not taken the word of someone simply because he had a shiny cover story and amazing empty promises.  Every single person who puts themselves on the internet immediately makes themselves vulnerable to some extent.  How vulnerable you allow yourself to be, however, is something every one of us can closely control.

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Catfishing

By now, everyone has heard at least a piece of the story surrounding Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who was said to have died of leukemia on the same day Te’o’s grandmother passed away.  Te’o was made into a hero after the tragedies, leading Notre Dame to a victory over Michigan State as he grieved.  It turned out that Kekua never existed; her photo was stolen from a female who claims to have no knowledge whatsoever of the hoax and the online accounts associated with Kekua have been shown to be fake.  Te’o is now claiming he was “catfished;” fooled into believing his online relationship with Kekua was real and pointing out the similarities between his story and the ones shown on MTV’s documentary, Catfish.

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Te’o may have just been busted for trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and make himself out to be some sort of hero, or he may have honestly been a victim of online deception.  I have been watching Catfish on MTV since it premiered and it’s both scary and shocking to see how many people out there willingly create fake profiles to string people along.  In the time I’ve watched, only one person turned out to be exactly who he said he was (the secret was his weight problem) while everyone else was revealed to be deceptive in some form.  There was one happy ending, with a female going through gender reassignment and pretending to be a man who was lucky enough to have found a female who cared more about the person than the gender, but everyone else had their illusion of love shattered.

With the popularity of Facebook soaring, it is pretty easy to take photos from another source (generally old MySpace profiles) and create a Facebook profile for a fictional person in order to get attention, get revenge, or to fill a hole in your life that you feel unable to fill by being honest.  Unless you go the extra mile and insist on video chatting, receiving obviously up-to-date photos, or meeting in person, you have no way of knowing who you are talking to online.  Just this week, MTV’s Catfish showed a man sending intimate photos and having sexual conversations with a beautiful blond who turned out to be a gay man.  You can imagine how thrilled he was as it was revealed that the woman he had been sharing these private moments with was actually a man.

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I’ve been a part of social media since America Online made its debut and I even ended up meeting my husband online, falling in love with him even though we were separated by a thousand miles.  I’ve obviously connected with strangers online and still continue to do so via Twitter.  The difference is, I’m a terribly cautious person.  I can be suspicious to a fault and have dismissed countless people due to their lack of sincerity, their flat photos, their friend hoarding tendencies, and other behaviors that I considered warning signs.  I have no doubt that somewhere along the line, I have spoken to one or more people who were full of it.  People have been lying ever since we were given the option to hide behind a keyboard and computer screen.  The internet allows us to be who we most desire, hiding what we wish and showcasing what we love about ourselves.  For some people, that means lying about those ten extra pounds.  For others, it means lying about everything.

The positive side of all this is that it is incredibly easy to avoid getting caught in a web of lies.  Insisting on a video chat, a meeting, or recent photos can validate that the person you’re speaking to online is genuine.  Doing a bit of research yourself can also help; conduct a Google image search of your online crush, search for their name, and look at their Facebook wall to see if things check out.  Yes, it does seem a bit invasive, but if it safeguards you against being scammed, it’s worth doing.  On MTV’s Catfish, Nev Schulman easily exposes holes in the stories of these Catfish by conducting simple searches and sending a message or two.  Before getting caught up in your new love life, it won’t do anything but help to do a bit of research and be a little cautious.

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What confuses me the most is how committed these catfish can get to their fake persona.  They invest an astounding amount of time and energy into creating and maintaining these fake online profiles, weaving a complex web of lies to hold on to countless victims.  While some of them have heart-wrenching backstories of being bullied, abused, or neglected, it doesn’t explain why they are happy to deceive people they claim to care about.  With the people who create fake profiles out of spite in order to get back at somebody, I fail to find a logical explanation of why they would invest so much of their time into a person (or people) they claim to not care about.  Regardless of what reason a person has to create and maintain a fake profile, it is definitely not a healthy or normal behavior.

MTV’s Catfish always shows the other side of the coin, allowing the person behind the profile to speak in their defense and seemingly asking the audience to sympathize with this person.  This may be harsh, but I don’t feel that this kind of liar deserves any sympathy.  When you enter into a romantic relationship with someone, online or otherwise, you owe it to that person to be open and honest.  To allow someone to fall in love with you while you hide behind someone else’s photos and a fake story is disgusting and wrong, plain and simple.  You’re screwing with their emotions and with their life.  You also run the risk of causing emotional trauma if you’re deceptive enough; a straight man finding out he has been sexting a gay man rather than a woman can be quite a blow and can do serious damage to certain people.  Extreme deceptions aside, anyone is going to be devastated to learn that their love is a completely different person.

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None of us can control the actions of other people.  The only thing we can control is what we do ourselves.  We can choose to put our full faith and trust into a person we’ve never laid eyes on or we can protect ourselves and take steps to ensure this person is who they claim to be.  We can ignore our suspicions because the love is so wrong or we can pay attention to them and see if they are valid.  There’s no reason to be paranoid and suspect that everyone online is a liar, but we obviously do have reasons to want to validate a person’s identity before getting in too deep with them.  Being open to love does not mean being vulnerable or foolish.  Before you allow yourself to fall, take a minute to look where you’re landing.  It can be the difference between happily floating away on the waves of new love and cracking your skull on the bottom of an empty pool.

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