“Catfishing” is suddenly in the news again, with reports that the University of Virginia gang rape scandal may have been rooted in a romantic scam.
At the heart of the scandal, according to documents filed in a lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine, was a troubled young woman who fell for a guy who failed to return her affections. Instead of moving on, the woman invented a fictitious upperclassman who claimed to be enamored with her – presumably with the hope of showing her real crush what he was missing. From there, reputations were ruined, a campus was roiled and national outrage ensued.
This phenomenon known as catfishing is a uniquely modern one: a single lie, enabled by the cloak of technology, that stretches, morphs and multiplies until whole personas are fabricated, emotions are manipulated and hearts are broken. So, why do they call it that again?
Let’s go back. Way back to 2010, when the term first entered the lexicon. It began with a documentary about a New York City man lured into an Internet relationship with an attractive 19-year-old woman in the Midwest. Or so he thought. When inconsistencies began to arise in the woman’s story, Nev Schulman, along with his brother and a filmmaker friend, traveled to Michigan to meet the woman, ultimately discovering that he’d been corresponding with a 40-year-old housewife all along.
It was that woman’s husband who inadvertently coined the phrase “catfish.” Sitting outside with his elbow perched on the back of a bench, he tells the filmmakers about live cod being transported from Alaska to China. During the journey the fish would become lethargic; by the time they arrived, he says, “their flesh was mush and tasteless.” But someone discovered that if catfish were put in the tanks, the cod would remain active. The man said he thanks God for people who play a similar role in life – those “who keep you on your toes, keep you thinking, keep you guessing.”
The victims of catfishing might not agree. The 2010 film spawned a popular MTV series that revealed how widespread the deceptions had become. The rise of the Internet, with its dating sites, chat rooms and virtual-reality simulators, enabled people to become whoever they wanted to be – at least for a while. Don’t like the way you look? Download a headshot of a fashion model and make that your profile pic. Have a crappy job? Not anymore. You’re now an esteemed artist (whose works you pilfered from an online gallery.) Whatever you dreamed, you could become (or at least pretend to be). And you could convince others it was the truth.
Lies told in the name of romance are nothing new. (See the 1969 film “The Honeymoon Killers,” based on an infamous series of true-life romantic scams from the 1940s.) But the modern need for human connection, even at the cost of honesty, is especially sad. Many of the perpetrators of catfishing don’t believe they can be loved as they truly are. It is only through lies that they can have the relationships they so deeply desire.
In one of the most famous instances of catfishing, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o publicly mourned the death of his girlfriend throughout the fall of 2012. Until, that is, he found out she never existed. “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about,” he said at the time. “But over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realise that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
Catfishing frequently involves a story about a tragic disease or a long-distance deployment or a stint in rehab. Anything to prevent the person on the other end of the deception from insisting on a face-to-face meeting. Because then it all blows up.
But it almost always blows up anyway.
With the U-Va. case, the only difference is that it came with a kind of mushroom cloud of devastation rarely seen before. This unrequited freshman crush ultimately resulted in the duping of a professional journalist and waves of public outrage as the young woman’s story was told – and then peeled back to a pit of deceit.
Surely she didn’t know how big and ruinous her lie would become. But then, one never does.
Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style. She is the author of ‘The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook.’