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Dr. Petroski
Dr. Petroski
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Manti and the Catfish Fry

on Thu May 24, 2018 9:09 pm
During the 2012 NCAA FBS football season, traditional power Notre Dame returned to their glory days, reaching (although ultimately losing) the BCS national championship game. The team was propelled all season by all-American linebacker Manti Te’o and his inspirational story. During the season, in the week leading up to a game against rival Michigan State, Manti’s grandmother and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua—who had been dying of complications with leukemia—both passed away within 24 hours of each other. Heartbroken, Manti decided to play in the game against Michigan State and recorded 12 tackles, one sack, and a fumble recovery, leading his team to a 20-3 victory. Part of the reason Manti played in the game rather than returning home to Hawaii were the inspirational words of Kekua, who told him that no matter what happened to her, he should continue playing football.

After the season ended, details began emerging about Manti’s girlfriend. It seems she may not have actually died of leukemia as was reported during the season. It also seemed that she may not have actually existed in the first place. Instead, it came to light that Te’o was part of an elaborate hoax (most likely as the victim of the hoax), which was designed to make him believe that Lennay Kekua actually existed, created by Ronaiah Tuiasopo. Pictures of his girlfriend existed, but the actual person who those pictures were of did not know they were being used. And Manti had never met his girlfriend face-to-face.

Known as a “catfish,” this is defined on Urban Dictionary as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” The phrase was coined by documentary filmmaker Ariel Schulman, who showed a similar story in the 2010 movie Catfish and has worked on a MTV series of the same name. As discussed in Chapter 5, this is just the kind of media coverage that could lead people to think that this is a common phenomenon. But is it?

Online, you can be anyone you want to be because of the restriction of the visual information that would tell you that a person is not who they say they are, right? It is hard to ignore the fact that what happened to Manti Te’o would not have happened face-to-face (or at least would have been incredibly difficult). The lack of nonverbal cues in many online platforms does lead to possibilities for deception that would be hard, if not impossible, to pull off face-to-face. However, as Cornell professor Jeff Hancock has pointed out, social media actually seems to lead to less deception overall, compared to face-to-face interaction.

How common do you think this phenomenon is? Are people constantly getting deceived? Or is the perceived prevalence of the "catfish" just a common fear that is a knee-jerk reaction to evolving notions of relationships? More to the point...is this something that is exclusive to online relationships? Could it be that those that fall prey to catfish situations are simply naive about relationships and the ways they develop? Could this also be a function people mistakenly making the assumption that online relationships are different from face-to-face relationships? What do you think?

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Dr. Petroski
Department of Communication
Southern Connecticut State University
petroskid1@southernct.edu
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