catfishing, online, digital culture

How did catfishing come into our society?

11 minutes to read
Anna Meerts

This article deals with one of the downsides of digitalization called catfishing. Digitalization has brought us a lot of positive things. You can contact your friends and family more often, even if they are far away. You can meet new people online and even find your true love via dating sites or social media websites. But meeting people online also has its downsides, as will become clear below.

The cod, the catfish and catfisching

Wikipedia gives the following definition of a catfish:

“A catfish is a person who creates fake personal profiles on social media sites using someone else's pictures and false biographical information to pretend to be someone other than themselves. These "catfish" usually intend to trick an unsuspecting person or persons into falling in love with them.” 

People who catfish do it because they are insecure about themselves and the online world gives them a way to escape reality, or they do it for their own entertainment. In some cases they do it for revenge, or to prank someone. The term “catfish” became popular because of the MTV show Catfish. This show is based on the 2010 film Catfish and is co-hosted by Nev Schulman and Max Joseph. Together, they try to help people figure out if the person they are talking to on the internet is hiding behind someone else’s photos and is using fake profiles or not.

At the end of the movie “catfish” where Nev finally meets his catfisher Angela, her husband explains the story with a methaphor. He explains how fisherman used to have the problem that their cod became bored, while they were being tanked on the journey from Alaska to China. Because of that, the cod would lose their taste and texture. At one point, fisherman came up with an idea to put catfish in the same tank as the cod. Catfish are a natural predator so they would chase the cod to keep them from being bored, which would lead to better quality cod.

The parallel with Nev's catfish story is that the catfish (Angela) lured Nev into her online territory and kept him moving around, “stimulating” him. This is a very good way to explain what happens when people are being catfished, because almost all of the catfish have a motive for their actions. The story about the cod and catfish is of course questionable, but for the purpose of explaining why this phenomenon got its name that doesn't matter.

As I said before, digitalization brought a lot of positive with it, but it also brought us a lot negative things. Catfishing in this particular form has probably been around since social media exist, but only came to light when Nev Schulman released his documentary Catfish. Nev believed that what happened to him was a thing that wouldn't happen to a lot of people. However, after the release of his documentary, he got hundreds of messages and emails from people that had been through the same experience and were ashamed that this had happened to them. When they saw Nev's documentary, they realised that they were not alone in this. So, catfishing had been around for a long time, but the release of the documentary put the capper on it. As a result of all these reactions from people who wanted help from Nev, MTV started airing a tv-show called ‘Catfish’, in which Nev and his co-host Max Joseph try to help people who think they are being catfished.

The example of Manti Te'o

In the offline world, we have to stick to one identity; it is not possible to be multiple personae at the same time. Your personality may change over time, but you still inhabit the same body and that is something that you cannot change. In the online world, the concept of identity is very different; there are no rules on how to behave online and you do not posess a physical body online. This makes it easier for people to melt into different personae, and you can have as many online personae as you like(Donath, 1999; 29). Manti Te'o's story illustrates this.

Te'o's case is one of the most popular examples of catfishing. In 2013, the University of Notre Dame football star told the public public that on September 12th, 2012, both his girlfriend and grandmother had died. He said that his girlfriend, Lennay Kakua, had died in a car crash whilst battling leukemia. Because Kakua had told him to keep playing if something ever happened to her, he played his best season yet for Notre Dame. He captured the hearts of many sports fans in the United States because of that. However, on January 16th, Deadspin received an anonymous tip and published an article stating that Kakua had never existed and the whole relationship was a hoax created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasospoo. It's obvious that Tuisasospoo's offline identity is male and he cannot keep that from other people. But he created a different persona online, because the online world has the possibilities to do so. His online idenitity was that of a woman who had cancer and died. This is quite different from his offline persona. The pictures that were used to make Kakua’s fake profile, were actually pictures of Diane O’Meara and she said that she had never had any contact with Te’o. 

Dr. Phil McGraw, left, interviews Ronaiah Tuiasosopo

Some people accused Te’o of creating a fake girlfriend to get some publicity and sympathy. Part of the reason for the suspicion is that Deadspin also figured out that Tuiasosopo called Te’o after he killed Kakua off, to explain that it was all a hoax. Te’o never came forward with that news, hence raising suspicion. However, Te’o insisted that it was a lie and that he did not know anything. He said that 22-year-old Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the person behind the hoax, the person he first thought was Lennay’s cousin. Eventually, Te’o and Tuiasospoo both spoke publically on the Dr. Phil Show. Tuiasosopo admitted to having deceived Te’o, and that he fell in love with him. He says that at one point he knew what he was doing was wrong and knew it had to stop. This explains why he killed Lennay off for good. This didn't feel right to him, because it was not the truth, so he called Te’o and came clean. He blamed cafishing Te'o on the pain of being molested as a child. Like most catfishers, he created a fake identity online to escape his past.

Legal aspects

Catfishing is very similar to phishing (reeling in victims online and steal their identities). The difference between the two is that a catfish uses someone else's identity to lure people in and phishing is that someone lures you online in and tries to steal your identity. It is actually legal – in the U.S. – to pretend to be someone else online. It could violate the terms of service of the website that has been used, but it is not illegal by law. But it also depends if the person who catfishes lies to obtain something specific. For example, if a 40 year old man pretends to be a 16 year old boy online, to obtain explicit photos of a 15 year old girl, he would be breaking several laws. Phishing is a bit different though, because it's used for identity theft. A lot of people have received an email from their bank that was actually sent by phishers, who try to persuade you to send your banking information to them.

There is, however, a side of catfishing that people – and the documentary – do not really pay attention to: the people whose pictures have been used by the catfisher. These people do not get a voice in the documentary; they only get to say if they were the person the victim was talking to, and nothing more. Take for instance the story about Josh Duggar and Matthew McCarthy. McCarthy is a DJ based in Los Angeles and Josh Duggar is an American television personality and political activist. In 2015, Josh had an account on Ashley Madison, Twitter and OkCupid, but he used pictures of the DJ. Josh claims he has found the picture just by googling ‘random guy’. McCarthy has sought damages claiming he has lost gigs and has received nasty messages referring to him as ‘Duggar’s boy toy’ and DJ Duggar, as a result of the scandal (Ruiz, 2017). As a result, McCarthy has decided to sue Duggar for defamation.

Batman against online cheaters

The people who catfish are – as mentioned before – mostly people who are insecure about themselves and/or have had bad experiences in their youth. Of course, this is not the case with every catfish. The best example I have for this, is an episode of catfish the series' second season, called “Artis & Jess”. The story is about Artis, who thought he was dating a girl who resembles a porn star named Jess online, and was even prepared to give up his current girlfriend for her, with whom he has three kids. Jess only has one picture of herself on Facebook, which is immediately suspicious. After doing someresearch, Nev and Max found out that the person in the picture is not the person Artis is talking to. The person he was talking to is called Justin, who apparently had another motive to catfish people than the normal reasons like revenge or escaping from their own lives. Justin was catfishing people, because he wanted to make a point. He kind of saw himself as the Batman against online cheaters. 

As Tsatsou describes in her work, most of the time, the identity you have in the real "offline" world, stands apart from the identity you have in the "online" world: 

"Attachment identity is often not expressed or accomplished offline due to personal or systemic constraints and it can find space for fulfilment through practices in cyberspace that in turn can differ from offline acts and life experiences." (Tsatsou, 2014; 104) 

This can indeed be seen in this example; in real life Justin does not flirt with boys who are in a relationship and see if they fall for his trap. He is restricted in a way (he is a boy, obviously), but in the online world these resstrictions do not exist. He can easily pose as a woman by using someone else's pictures. This does not mean that wanting to be the batman against cheating isn't in his personality, it just doesn't come the fore in his "offline" world, because of the restrictions meant before. It started off as a joke – as it almost always does – but then Justin started to realize that some men he was talking to as Jess, were emotionally cheating on their real-life partner. He did not think that that was okay. The confrontation between the two in that episode of Catfish did not go well. Justin stepped out of his car and while he was walking towards Artis, Nev and Max, started to clap slowly. They even almost got into a fight, but eventually Justin walked away and that was it.

Catfish Memes MTV

In a situation like this, you could ask yourself who is to blame for this. You could say that the guilt lies with Justin, because he led someone else to believe that he was a beautiful girl who was in love with him. Even if he tried to catch the people who are emotionally cheating on their partners in the act, which a lot of people would also disapprove of, he did mislead someone else and lied to them multiple times. However, if you would look at Artis, you can question him too. Why did he believe in the existence of a girl who only has only one picture of herself on her facebook page? Moreover, they only lived 20 minutes apart from each other. They also have never spoken on the phone and Jess openly talked about being single on Facebook and her Facebook wall had a lot of comments from people who are questioning if the account is real. With all this in mind, Artis still wanted to leave the mother of his kids. He was already emotionally cheating on her, so you could say he had it coming.

Catfish as a negative effect of globalization

Catfishing is a very interesting, but negative effect of globalization. Because the use of the internet is so liberal, you can be anything and everything you want, and it is therefore very easy for catfishers and phishers to lure you in. I guess you could say that you need a little rain to have a rainbow, because globalization has also brought us many positive things.



Findlaw. (n.d.). What is 'Catfishing'?