Fakery, misrepresentation, pretending to be someone you are not. It’s a phenomenon as old as recorded history.
One of the first recorded instances in Western history and literature is in the book of Genesis, where Jacob, the younger son of the patriarch Isaac, disguises himself as his brother Esau so that he can receive the blessing that his blind, aged father intends for his older son. (It’s of more than incidental interest that Jacob undertakes this ruse at the urging and with the connivance of his and Esau’s mother, Rebekah.)
Reinventing oneself, making oneself anew, adopting a new identity—to escape creditors or punishment for crime, to get out of the shadow of an oppressive family or for any of myriad other reasons—has been virtually a part of America’s national identity from its beginning. “Go west, young man” was only partly about economic opportunity; it also was about the opportunity to define oneself anew, to escape the limitations of upbringing and static social categories.
But with the advent of fingerprinting, DNA testing and electronic databases that never forget anything, losing an old identity and adopting a new one has become more difficult in recent decades. And yet, in one area of the digital world, fakery, misrepresentation and masquerading flourish and, indeed, have never been easier.
Social media—online meeting places, dating sites, chat rooms—apparently abound in lies, some small, but some—like the hoax allegedly perpetrated on Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o—enormous, with the potential to cause grave harm, up to and including death.
Anyone who has taken advantage of an online dating service is familiar with the small lies: the woman who shaves a few years off her real age or says she is slender when in fact she used to be but hasn’t been for quite a while; the man who posts a photo of himself with a full head of hair when he actually has begun doing a Donald Trump-type combover to conceal the growing empty territory above his ears.
There are larger lies: the people who describe themselves as single or divorced when they’re not; the con men looking for a woman—any woman—with a nice income.
And then there are the lies that achieve a completely different dimension—like the one that, according to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, entrapped Te’o.
There are still too many unanswered questions about this bizarre episode—questions created in many instances by things that Te’o and his father and friends told the press—to be able to say with any certainty what really happened.
But while the notion of a virile, high-achieving young football hero becoming ensnared in a long-term relationship with a “girlfriend” whom he never sees and who dies at a dramatic moment in his life—while that notion may at first seem outlandish and, frankly, incredible, it turns out, on closer examination, not to be.
Swarbrick called attention during his press conference to the documentary film “Catfish,” which gave rise to the television show “Catfish,” and to the phenomenon of catfishing. After calling up and watching a couple of episodes of the TV show, I began to understand how Te’o—and maybe almost anyone—could become hooked by a catfisher.
One episode featured a young man named Jarrod Musselwhite, a 27-year-old divorced father who lives in Georgia and has been involved for 18 months in an online relationship with Abigail Johnson, a young woman who lives in Mississippi and whose online profile shows her as willowy, blonde and Barbie Doll-cute.
It becomes apparent early on that Jarrod is deeply, maybe even unhealthily, invested in this relationship. If “Abby” turns out to be as her picture shows her and as their phone and online conversations have shown her, Jarrod will have proven to his family, his acquaintances and, most important, to himself that he is not the perpetual loser, the outsider, he always has felt like.
When the show’s producers finally bring them together, Abigail turns out to be not willowy, blonde and Barbie Doll-cute. In fact, she is dark-haired, obese and deeply troubled, and her real name is Melissa.
Explaining her deception to an obviously dejected Jarrod, she says she knew that if she showed herself as she really looked, she would never have attracted any man’s interest—her experience of rejection throughout her school years and young adulthood had demonstrated that.
“Pretty much all of it was, you know, me—just not me,” she said. “Everything, all the emotions, you know—just a different face, I suppose.”
Those words were kind of an eerie echo of Swarbrick’s description of Te’o. “Every single thing about this…was real to Manti,” Swarbrick said. “There was no suspicion that it wasn’t, no belief that it might not be. And so the pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. And that’s the nature of this sad, cruel game.”
All this assumes, of course, that Te’o truly was a victim, and was not involved in creating the hoax of his “girlfriend.” The point is that it is not implausible to believe that he was a victim. The point is that this kind of hoax has been perpetrated many times already in the Internet age, sometimes with tragic consequences.
But, some people will say, what did Te’o need with an imaginary girlfriend? He was young, strong, good-looking, high-achieving and about to be very wealthy. He was no loser, no reject who had to troll dating sites or other Internet venues to find a date.
Who says? Who can say for any of us?
Te’o was like all of us: human and needy. Needy of love, both to receive and to give. Needy of connection. If in fact he did so, is there something reprehensible in his finding it through a voice on a telephone, through a picture and text messages? Is there something wrong with his daring to believe that a person with whom he felt he had established a connection would be genuine, and not simply part of an elaborate act of fakery? And to what purpose? To get a laugh at another’s expense?
The ethics of the Te’o case are really quite simple and require no heavy-duty philosophical analysis. For the media, the lesson is the most basic: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Nothing is too obvious to merit skepticism. And particularly when a story involves the kind of coincidences the Te’o story did—grandmother and girlfriend dying within hours of each other in the midst of the football season—wonder whether this story isn’t just too good to be true.
As for the catfishers of the world, it is unethical and evil to play with the emotions of another person so crassly, so callously, as the catfisher in Te’o’s case allegedly played with his. Such people add to the world’s fund of cynicism and viciousness and unhappiness.
I don’t remember my Dante well enough to say in which circle it lies, but there is a special place in hell for such persons.
Don Wycliff is a Distinguished Journalist in Residence in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago. He has been inducted in the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Journalists Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.