Marc Ambinder

The Catfish and the football player

What an online "hoax" reveals about the rest of us

Boy (stellar Notre Dame football linebacker) meets girl online. Boy falls in love; boy talks to girl on the phone. Boy allegedly meets with girl in person after a game in 2009. Boy tells ESPN he talks to girlfriend every night on the telephone; boy loses grandmother. Boy loses girl to leukemia within hours of losing his grandmother. Television producers see an angle; boy tweets his grief for girl; audience says "awww," Notre Dame has a hero; boy gets phone call from number he associates with the girl on Dec. 6; boy tells Notre Dame about formerly dead girl on Dec. 26; Notre Dame says nothing as media repeats boy-meets-girl story through the BCS National Championship game; Deadspin suggests boy perpetrated the hoax; Notre Dame says hoax was perpetrated on boy; girl's status is undetermined. Boy has many questions to answer. 

Whom to believe? As they say on the texts: IDK. 

But as weird and potentially horrifying as this story is, it should not be too unfamiliar to anyone who spends a lot of time online.

Have you ever posted a picture of yourself on Facebook, and then checked back a few hours later to see who "liked" it? Maybe it was a pithy quip you invented or stole from someone. Have you ever had a moment of euphoria when an idol of yours (Harry Shearer, Howie Mandel, Gilbert Gottfreid, Albert Brooks) responds to a tweet of yours? Maybe it was a blogger like myself who responded to a comment you wrote. Since much of my professional life has required a significant online presence, I've fallen victim to to those temptations: Cheap thrills, kind of like a post-modern peep show, except that we are all the exhibitionists and the voyeurs.

A lot of technologists and psychologists say that a culture of narcissism is the obvious consequence of the great turn online, especially as we recreate entire social networks that have totally different feedback mechanisms from the ones we're used to with our friends in the flesh. True, it's now common to satirize those who are disappointed when someone they've friended on Facebook doesn't friend them back, and it's also easy enough to make fun of people who are too easily emotionally manipulated by these platforms. 

Have our online engagements, researcher Brene Brown asks, turned us into, "a culture of self-absorbed, grandiose people who are only interested in power, success and beauty, and being special?" Do we let our guard down because we are so easily entranced?

Charlatans are everywhere. A Twitter follower tried for months to convince me that he had illicit relations with very important people and begged for me to cover the story. Another used a well-engineered constructed identity to try to and plant false information about a political figure. These people take advantage of the fact that it is very easy to go from zero to 60 online, emotionally, when there is no context to keep one grounded. It is so easy to be recklessly provocative.  It's an outlet. A great outlet. An easy outlet. Dangerously easy.

A great football player — assuming Manti Te'o of Notre Dame was really the victim of a hoax — is no more immune than anyone else.

Consider the following:

— People who pose as members of the opposite gender to convince people of the same gender to send them raunchy photographs on online websites or social media apps. 

— People who use other people's photographs to do the same 

— The pandemic of emotional and even physical exhibitionism on sites like Facebook and Tumblr

— People who seek solace from a paracosmic existence on Twitter and regularly deceive people who engage with them

— Catfishers, or people who like to exploit and manipulate other people using social media

What causes these behaviors? Surely, sensation-seeking. But shame, too. Shame is at the root, I think. Getting rid of the horrible anxiety of shame is made quite easy by the online culture, and it leads to extremes in behavior. Persistent shame, as Brown notes, is "a lack of empathy. Grandiosity. A pervasive need for admiration."  

Shame is a tool that is often exploited; very rarely is it used appropriately. (Lance Armstrong, you should feel, as in really, really feel, shame.) Kids who were not parented correctly, or who feel ugly, or who feel powerless and socially useless — their shame dissipates only through behaviors that are self-destructive.

I don't mean for this to be a pop psychology lecture. I do want to suggest that what seems on first glance like a bizarre hoax, a devious hoax, is a variant of behavior that is far more common than we'd like to think.


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