Manti Te’o and the elusive catfish — social media’s new piranha

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Mani T'eo

By now, you’ve read about the Manti T’eo scandal. No? It’s a pretty hard story to summarise, because it’s crazier than a box full of angry snakes. Basically, a promising young college football player, Manti T’eo, fell in love online, with a perfect woman named Lennay Kekua. They spoke for hours over the phone, he chatted to her parents and siblings over email, and theirs was a truly modern romance.

Tragically, Lennay Kekua died, on the same day that Manti’s grandmother passed away. After suffering these two devastating losses, Manti played an excellent game, and this young star captured the nation’s support — everyone loves an underdog story.

But soon, facts weren’t adding up. After some shrewd investigation, it came to light that there was, and is, no Lennay Kekua.

Lennay Kekua was actually Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Manti’s long-time friend.

RIGHT? Crazy. Ronaiah had made a full profile for Lennay, replete with friends and family members — because no one exists in isolation on Facebook. Her albums were full of candid vacation snaps, and for all intents and purposes, she was a very believable avatar for Ronaiah. He even changed his voice to sound like a pretty, convincing girl. If you have some time to get properly freaked out, watch this:

Lennay had a Twitter profile as well as a Facebook profile. This means that “she” needed a believable amount of friends and followers on each platform, all of whom had to be created, filled out, curated and maintained by Ronaiah. This is, truly, a mammoth task.

The internet has exploded with this story. The sheer creepiness of the whole boy-meets-girl-who-is-actually-a-dude-boy-knew-in-elementary-school has captured the collective morbid interest of the internet. But really, it’s not that new. If you haven’t seen the movie Catfish, you should prioritise that. Not to give away any spoilers, but it’s as creepy as catching someone sniffing your hair in an elevator.

The term Catfish has now come to describe those people in life who pretend to be who they are not, reminding us of the value of our trust, and our lack of discretion when it comes to the internet.
Lennay Kekua is not, by any means, an isolated example. People have been adopting new personas online since they first realised that anonymity offered an opportunity to escape the disappointing bounds of reality. Online, anyone can be 21, or beautiful, or smart.

Is Roaniah really the Grande Creep we think? On the Dr. Phil show (that apparently exists), Ronaiah admitted to having been sexually abused as a child, having romantic feelings for Manti, and being a generally confused, unhappy person. We all embellish a little on the internet. Ever professed to be a little more well-versed than you actually are on a comment thread? Ronaiah just did this on a very large scale.

But how could you ever really know if you are being Catfished? Or if your face has become the Catfish’s avatar, like Diane O’Meara, the woman who unknowingly became the face of Lennay Kekua. There are many best practices to follow to keep you safe online. According to Masha du Toit, the writer of the Internet Super User online short course, learning how to keep yourself safe online is as important, and as basic, as learning never to use a hairdryer in the bath.

Keep up-to-date on the latest privacy settings, and regularly check to ensure that your personal information (photos, address etc.) is only viewable by approved friends. Be wary of the friends you accept – to ensure ultimate safety, only accept requests from people you know in real life. However, even so, your information can be exploited – Diane and Ronaiah were high school friends, and so Diane had no reason to be wary of his Facebook request.

Right now, you might be the face of a fictitious online personality. If someone is pretending to be you on Facebook, you can report them via Facebook’s help page, after verifying that you are actually you. Further than that, there’s not much you can do. There is no way to know your information has been stolen, other than realising it yourself or being alerted by a friend. Beware the catfish — they are slimy little blighters.

Image: Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy (via Wikipedia)

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