Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mantai Te’o, Catfishing and the Evolution of Deception

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. Marcus Aurelius

As a writer who creates stories about modern spies and criminals, the Te'o catfish story is fascinating. At this point, very few people know what really happened, but if you think about the big picture, the ultimate truth doesn’t really matter. The implications of what we do collectively going forward could be much more profound than whatever winds up happening to a single football player.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that someone has been manipulated with a false identity. Catfishing is an online phenomenon that is probably as old as social networks and online dating. Hackers constantly use social engineering to get people to reveal their passwords. Con artists have duped marks for centuries by pretending to be someone who didn’t exist. Spies and undercover agents have fabricated fake identities since the Trojan Horse. Te’o’s case isn’t unique on its own. The importance of this case lies in the effect it could have on us, not the effect it will have on him.

When you take a wide view of the Te’o story, it becomes special whether you look at it from a William Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, Kevin Mitnick, or Robert Greene perspective. The evolution of media that was the foundation of both Gibson’s and McLuhan’s work is highlighted by the way this one player’s story could shape and mold both traditional and social media with no facts to back up his statements. The emotional investment that Te’o allegedly put into this hoax is something that would impress even an elite hacker like Mitnick. And the act of seducing a man without ever meeting him in person is a feat that embodies everything that Robert Greene discussed in his books.  This story has so many layers that we might not understand its full effects for a long time.

Te’o will stay with us because his imaginary girlfriend could alter the way we interact. The story is still developing, but it's going to have an impact on social interactions, manners, psychology and what we believe concerning the people we meet and read about. This doesn’t apply just for journalists, but for anyone who creates content online or off, even if it’s just a dating profile on Plenty of Fish. Understanding the motivations of the catfish and the fallout across social and traditional media is going to be intense, no matter what the truth of the Te’o story is. All of us might become a little more suspicious and a little more cynical about who we chat with and what we read online. Ultimately, that might be a good thing. The suspension of disbelief is critical for enjoying fiction. In real life, it has a definite downside.

Just ask Manti Te’o.

Have fun.

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