Do we know who we are talking to online? Michaela Hall Investigates…

In the twenty-first century, it is familiar to most to form virtual relationships, with the hope of them translating into real life.

There isn’t an abundance of social platforms online for a user to do so, with approximately ninety-six million users signed up. With such an extensive amount of possible connections, how does a user begin to select their network and know who they are really talking to online?

In 2010, ‘Catfish’, a documentary film by filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost was released. This film follows Ariel Schulman’s brother Nev Schulman developing a seemingly genuine relationship online. At the start of the film the viewer witnesses Nev receiving a painting from an eight-year-old girl, (Abby) depicting an image he had uploaded to Facebook. After becoming Facebook friends, this then extends to Nev connecting with Abby’s family including her mother (Angela) and older sister (Megan).

As time progressed, Nev began to develop a romantic relationship with Megan, who would routinely send him photographs of herself along with clips of her singing. However, it was soon discovered by Nev, Ariel, and Henry that these clips and images were stolen from a YouTube account and profiles that weren’t assigned to Megan.

It also conspired that the details around Abby’s creative pursuits which initially connected Nev to the family were fake. At this point, it was obvious that something about this series of connections was false. Ariel then convinced Nev to continue filming and the trio decided to travel to Michigan to confront the users behind the profiles in person at their home.

They were met by Angela and Abby and it was eventually explained that Angela had been using the Megan profile with a friend’s photographs to speak to Nev and that she had been creating the artwork sent to Nev by Abby. Angela was orchestrating all three accounts to speak to Nev in an attempt to verify a ‘genuine’ identity.  This film was watched by millions and as a result, the term catfish was coined to describe an individual hiding behind a fake profile.

Not only did this film raise awareness of the misleading and potentially dangerous relationships that could be formed online, it also encouraged hundreds of others with similar experiences to share their stories and seek help. In 2012, Catfish the TV Show arrived on MTV with Nev Schulman as co-host.

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This show, which is still running today aims to uncover the truth behind suspicious online relationships. These episodes follow the full journey from initial investigations to a confrontation of the catfish.

By Michaela Hall: Culture Columnist

There are many motivations behind somebody creating a fake profile. Most commonly, to disguise their real identity, for financial gain, or simply as an immoral hobby. Catfish has seen it all. This trend presents a new dilemma for modern dating and friendships, in that not only now do users have to consider compatibility but also the overarching concern of how genuine a connection is.

To some, the show may be perceived as just another reality show. However, this show has succeeded in educating its viewers on online safety and how to prevent being catfished. This has been instrumental in sparking the necessity for online companies to recognise these risks and educate their customers. For example, Internet security company, Norton frequently publishes headlines such as ‘‘Romance scams in 2021: What you need to know’ and recently highlighted the important statistics that in 2019, online users in the US lost approximately two hundred million dollars to romance cyber scams.

So why is this still happening? The ease with which fake profiles can be made is unsettling and there are sites such as promoting the creation of fake Instagram profiles to prank friends contributing to this. The latest series of Catfish takes place virtually through the lockdown period of 2020-21 due to Covid-19 and highlights how the behaviour of catfishing has intensified in a time where users are living more digitally and relying on virtual connections.

In a digital society that is often dominated by issues of an identity crisis due to unrealistic representations of everyday life on platforms such as Instagram, catfishes are thriving and a sign of the times.  They are reacting to a space in which is easy to be who they want, for whatever purpose they wish, to the detriment of others. Through this cyber dependant period in which society is developing, it is more important than ever to ask- do we really know who is behind the screen?

MACKAYAN: do we know who we are talking to online?

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Artwork:  愚木混株