Legality of Catfish
Part 1: Catfish
The creation of the internet has given people access to more information, entertainment, and communication than ever before. A girl from Thailand can meet a boy from the United States in a matter of seconds in an online chat. It can connect people and build relationships, but it can also be used to lie and deceive. This was the case for football player Manti Te’o.
On September 12, 2012 the personal life of a college football player made headlines. Manti Te’o was a linebacker for Notre Dame when his grandmother and girlfriend tragically passed away within six hours of one another. Te’o told media outlets how his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua had died of Leukemia after being hospitalized after a car accident. There was an outpour of support from the Notre Dame community and media outlets alike. Despite his grief, Te’o did not miss a game and was voted runner-up for the Heisman trophy. Almost a year later, in January 2013, reporters of the sports blog Deadspin received an anonymous email tip that there might be more to the story. Deadspin launched an investigation, and on January 16, Deadspin was the first to publish an article claiming that Kekua did not exist. Kekua was not dead because she never existed in the first place. Instead, the person Te’o thought was his girlfriend was a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Pictures of Kekua that had been published in the media were actually of Diane O'Meara, a former high school classmate of Tuiasosopo. When this new story broke, Te’o admitted that he had never actually met Kekua in person, despite having told everyone they had. Te’o treid to video chat with Kekua but the connection on the other end would never work. Te’o didn’t think anything of it since Tuiasosopo was so good at sounding like a woman over the phone. Many wondered what Tuiasosopo motives were to want to be in a relationship with a man. In an interview with Dr. Phil, he admitted, “Truth of it is, I grew feelings, I grew emotions that sooner or later I couldn’t control anymore. When I tried to end things I tried every other way to end this. I tried this lie and this lie and this lie but nothing would work” (Myerburg). Tuiasosopo was someone struggling with his sexuality, seeking an escape from his life through his fake identity he made on the internet. Ultimately, Te’o had been catfished.
Catfish is a term that was coined by the 2010 documentary Catfish. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a catfish as “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” In the documentary, a New York photographer named Nev Schulman fell for Megan, a woman he met through Facebook. When he went to visit her he found out that Megan was actually a woman named Angela, who was older, married, and had kids. The term “catfish” came from a story Angela’s husband, Vince, told Nev after he found out Megan’s true identity. Vince told Nev a story about how when live cod were shipped to Asia from North America, the fish's inactivity in their tanks made the fish meat mushy and undesirable. Fishermen began to put catfish in the tanks with the cod to keep them active and alive. Vince made an analogy explaining that there are people in everyone's lives who keep each other active, always on their toes, and always thinking. He suggests that people should always be alert while socializing through the internet (Harris). In this way, catfish serves as a warning against the very thing it represents.
After Manti Te’os girlfriend hoax hit the media in 2012, the term “catfish” became mainstream. It brought the phenomenon to the attention of the public. As a result, numerous people came forward to share their catfish stories and some were featured in the media. There were so many people who emailed the producer of Catfish the documentary with similar experiences as Nev that the producers of started a show on MTV called Catfish: The TV Show. The show follows people who suspect they are being catfished. Main stars, Nev and Max, do extensive research to track the person behind the profile. The end goal is to arrange a meeting with the client and the true person they had been talking to. The reason catfishing has received so much attention is because it is not an uncommon occurrence and it has been happening since the conception of the internet. However, since the term and series of events associated with catfishing are new to this country, there are not specific laws that apply to catfishing.
Part 2: Implications
Technology makes it very easy for people to create a fake online identity in order to pretend to be someone they are not. There are good and bad societal implications that come along with this. The internet has the ability to connect people from all around the world. It can give people who feel lost in real life an opportunity to be someone that fits in on the internet. The bad is that people often take this too far, like Tuiasosopo in the case of Manti Te’o. This deceiving eventually wore on Tuiasosopo life. “I wanted to end it because after everything I had gone through, I finally realized that I just had to move on with my life. I had to start just living and let this go,” Tuiasosopo confessed (Myerburg). Deceiving other people and keeping up with lies can become an addiction. A catfish can become consumed with their made up life. There are some laws that discourage catfish. However, there is a lot of grey area in the law when it comes to catfishing, making each individual case hard to navigate.
Is catfishing illegal? Impersonating someone is not illegal in and of itself. It becomes illegal when you receive a benefit from impersonating someone else. Simply lying about who you are online is something that many people have done. For example, people who use online dating profiles embellish the truth all the time to make themselves appear more appealing. This is seen as unethical, but ultimately is not illegal and is often forgivable. According to HG.org, there are many aspects of catfishing that can become illegal. In the case of Manti Te’o, his situation seemed to be more malicious than lying or embellishing a few facts about oneself. Instead, a fake profile was made with stolen pictures, and the relationship caused Te’o emotional distress. Each case is different, and catfishing only becomes illegal when certain lines are crossed. Manti Te’o has a case for intentional infliction or emotional distress, since the perpetrator acted like the romantic partner had died, causing the victim severe emotional trauma. In other cases, if the perpetrator asks or coerces the victim for money, then it is considered fraud, which is worthy of a criminal charge. If the perpetrator uses pictures or social media content without the consent or copyright permission of the real person, there is a case for misappropriation of likeness. If the perpetrator assumes this other person’s identity and makes false statements that harm the reputation of the victim, there is a case of defamation. If a thirty-year-old man pretends to be a seventeen-year-old and asks a minor for nude pictures or sends nude pictures, then he has broken several laws and there is a case for child pornography. As you can see, there are laws surrounding certain aspects of catfishing, but none of them address catfishing directly.
The natural response to hearing about heart wrenching stories of deceit through catfishing is to demand that more laws be put in place addressing catfishing directly. This brings up the issue of how to go about verifying that an online user is who they claim to be. There are more steps websites could require when creating profiles, such as facial recognition or fingerprint recognition. This raises important questions about privacy online. How far are law enforcement and internet users willing to go in order to confirm one’s identity? Oftentimes, websites have users sign over their privacy rights, causing national debate and insecurity. Requiring further background checks to prevent catfishing has the potential to violate the liberty of users. Is catfishing an unavoidable consequence of the internet in a free society? While catfishing is wrong, so is violating user’s privacy online. Therefore, another solution would be to make catfishing illegal without taking preventative measures. However, other questions are raised concerning the grey area about what is considered to be catfishing. If catfishing is just deceiving someone into thinking you are someone else, when does embellishing turn into catfishing? In order to protect the liberty and privacy of users over the internet, no law can be enacted to prevent catfishing. While it is wrong, lying is not illegal. If it were, every parent who has lied to their children about Santa Claus would be arrested. Catfishing is an unavoidable consequence of free will. Therefore, all people can do is use caution when it comes to meeting people online and to remember that people are sometimes not who they appear to be.
Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of a free society is that people are able to deceive and lie about who they are. In order to preserve the privacy of users, the law must protect those who catfish. Manti Te’o and Nev Schulman learned their lesson the hard way about getting into online relationships. Their stories serve as a warning to others to remember that a catfish keeps you on your toes and alert. Always be wary and on the lookout for signs that the person isn’t who they say they are online.
"Catfishing can become an addiction."
Harris, Aisha. “The Surprisingly Long History of the Term ‘Catfish.’” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, 18 Jan. 2013, www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/01/18/catfish_meaning_and_definition_term_for_online_hoaxes_has_a_surprisingly.html.
HG.org. “Can I Sue for Being Catfished?” Hg.org, www.hg.org/article.asp?id=33850.
Myerberg, Paul. “Tuiasosopo Tells Dr. Phil Why He 'Killed' Te'o's Fake Girlfriend.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 31 Jan. 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2013/01/31/roniah-tuiasosopo-manti-teo-dr-phil-interview/1879643/.