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Catfishing: The Truth About Deception Online

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Red-tailed Catfish (Phractocephalus hemiliopterus). | Click on image for license and information.

The growing popularity of online dating

The dating scene has been changing over the last decade. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, approximately 6% of Internet users who are in a marriage or other committed relationship met online, compared to 3% who reported this in 2005. Additionally, 42% of Americans know someone who has used an online dating site or app, an increase of 11% from 2005, and 29% of Americans know someone who has met their partner through this medium, compared with 15% who made this claim in 2005.

This data represents a significant shift in the perception of online dating, suggesting that the stigma associated with the practice is dropping:

  • 59% of Internet users feel that online dating is a good way to meet people (compared with 44% in 2005),
  • 53% of Internet users feel that online dating is a good means of finding someone with shared interests (compared with 47% in 2005), and
  • 21% of Internet users feel that employing an online dating service is a mark of desperation, which is down from the reported 29% in 2005.

Despite these signs of growing acceptance, an undercurrent of hesitation and uncertainty persists when it comes to online relationships:

  • 54% of online daters believe that someone else has presented false information in their profile,
  • and 28% have been contacted in a way that left them feeling harassed or uncomfortable.

While some of us may Friend more discriminately than others, we live in a time where it’s common to build online networks that include secondary and tertiary connections. So don’t look so sheepish if you’ve ever added your friend’s aunt’s step-brother’s son or a random bartender or significant other of a friend you haven’t spoken to since high school to one of your online networks—you aren’t alone! We’ve actually been taught that this makes us good networkers—even thought it overlooks quality in favor of quantity—because the objective is to cast as wide a net as possible when building a network. But in this social strategy, how do we know that anyone is who they claim to be?

And more importantly, could we spot a catfish if one swam into our network?

Casting a hook

The term catfish was made popular by the 2010 documentary film by the same name (which has also morphed into a series on MTV). It refers to a person who is intentionally deceptive when creating a social media profile, often with the goal of making a romantic connection. This deception can be elaborate, and may involve the use of fake photos, fake biographies, and sometimes fictitious supporting networks as well.

The documentary followed the online relationship between photographer Yanev “Nev” Shulman and a young woman named Megan, whom Nev “met” after receiving a painting of one his photographs from her younger sister Abby. Nev connected with Abby, and subsequently her family, over email, phone, and eventually Facebook. His relationship with Megan grew until discrepancies in the information she shared were revealed. When questioned, she was evasive, prompting more questions and leading to additional disappointments as Nev discovered that not everything was as it seemed. He traveled to her home where he learned that Abby’s mother was actually playing the part of Megan. She fabricated an entire life on Facebook using strangers’ pictures and their information. She even went so far as to have her fictitious characters interact with each other on Facebook to make it appear on though they were members of a real network.

In the television series, Nev documents the stories of people who have been in online relationships for lengthy periods of time without meeting the other person. They contact Nev because they are ready to take the next step or because something feels off and they want answers. He travels with one of the couple for the meeting, helping to highlight skeptical elements of the story along the way, asking them to question why the relationship has unfolded as it has. Sometimes things are what they appear to be and distance or time has kept the couple from formally meeting, but often there’s an element of deception; for example, people may look nothing like their photographs or may be pretending to be of another gender or are in another relationship.

The web has had a reputation as a place where anonymity is permitted. However, social networking sites tend to encourage greater degrees of transparency. Users are required to create a profile, which helps to establish an online identity. Over time a user’s sum total of online activities paint a picture of who that user may be but we don’t always question this information. We tend to forget that we see what others want us to see when it comes to crafting an identity.

A catfish banks on this shortsightedness and shapes his or her profile(s) to serve us exactly what we want. They’re emphatic, they’re sympathetic, and they’re like-minded. The manipulation is so subtle that we don’t realize the ways in which the “click” that is the hallmark of a relationship is being orchestrated.

Pleasing to the eye

Catfish are successful because their actions mirror offline behaviors. We choose what we believe to be the best of ourselves to share with others. We highlight knowledge, skills, and tendencies that help establish our connection to particular social groups—and hopefully the person in front of us well. Sociologist Erving Goffman believed that this sort of editing of the self to shape the impression we make on others sits at the core of social interaction. We want to appear as similar as possible to the object of our interaction; acceptance secures our place within our networks.

This plays out online as well. Think about your Facebook profile photo, for example. How much time and thought did you invest in its selection? Did you think about how that photo represented you? You probably didn’t pick a photo where you thought you looked badly. And if it was a particularly good picture, when was the last time you changed it? Do you still look like that person or are you choosing to represent yourself as the person you were in that moment?

I know I’m firing off a lot of questions, but the point is that these are exercises of representation. And within these exercises deception might actually help us create an image of ourselves that has mass appeal. This type of deception can be somewhat contained offline. After all, when you’re face-to-face with someone, they have to support the image they’re presenting. This isn’t quite as true online—or rather, there’s some flexibility that arises from the disjuncture between a user’s profile and interaction with that user. Because it’s not instantaneous, users have the opportunity to craft a specific image and adjust that image over time. We can plan and edit ourselves in this medium.

This becomes slightly more nuanced with online dating. Online dating profiles are designed to emphasize relatively personal data, including things like height, weight, age, and preferences. Users may feel pressured to alter this information to present what they perceive is their ideal self and maximize their attractiveness. Though there’s a need to reconcile this self with reality and participants on these sites claim they are truthful, research has found that nine-out-of-ten online daters will fib about their height, weight, or age. Men are more likely to alter their height, perhaps because it is a reflection of status, while women are more likely to provide lower estimates on weight, likely because we place a high premium of desirability on the notion of “skinniness.” Both genders will lie about age (though incidences of deception in this category are small). Online presentation in dating applications and social networks is guided by the possibility of a future offline meeting. This means users eventually have to come to terms with the image they craft online. In this regard, it’s easy to explain discrepancies in weight and height as both can fluctuate. But age? Not quite as easy to get away with.

But before that offline meeting, users have to judge the information they see. Profiles in these settings are highly scrutinized against the measures by which users believe they will be judged themselves. For example, rampant misspellings or language misuse might be interpreted as a lack of interest or a lack of education. Writing style is also believed by some users to indicate personality, and care may be taken to adopt or avoid a certain tone—one user wanted to avoid sounding “cutesy” because she wanted to avoid people who might be looking for less serious relationships.

These types of deceptions allow online daters to create an ideal self. And that’s no different from the selves we create on other social networking sites, or the selves we try to generate when we meet people in offline settings. However, we’re kept honest to certain degree by the real-time interactions. This expectation of honesty helps us trust in the online networks that we build, particularly when it comes to secondary and tertiary contacts.

Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you

But there are places online where the possibility of that offline meeting is minimized. For example, in MUDs where people are actively creating characters outside of themselves, there is little expectation of a real life meeting with the character you might interact with online. That character is free from any trait of its originator. It is free to hold any occupation, be any age, switch gender, and be an expert in anything. This freedom allows these spaces to be used for exploration, which is guided by the understanding that the character is not a person but a mask that’s being employed.

These spaces are greatly different from social networks where you also have the expectation of interacting with an actual person. This expectation generates the trust that allows a catfish to infiltrate the network and survive. The degree of scrutiny of profiles and the effort of validation of identity are less on social networking sites than dating sites because the end goal is not necessarily an offline meeting. The assumption is that behaviors on the social networking site are uniform, so if the catfish adopts the social norms of the network (e.g., he or she must have a network of their own, which they will often fabricate), then the catfish can pass without attracting unwanted attention.

Why do they do it? The reasons are complex, but may be rooted in the “online disinhibition effect,” where the potential for anonymity in online spaces reduces people’s responsiveness to social and moral codes. There is a certain pleasure in deception—in knowing that you’ve managed to fool someone in some way. Online spaces mean that user don’t always have to face the people they fool, so feelings like stress, tension, guilt and shame can be avoided as they explore who they might want to be or how far they can press a storyline. Catfish lean heavily on avoiding offline meetings. They paint a picture of busy-ness or tragedy that keeps them away even while they continue to emotionally feed the relationship with an other.

Catfish avoid detection by positioning themselves in a position of perceived referential power. They build relationships of confidence and trust, which are aided by the medium of social networks where users are encouraged to share information. Catfish appear just like everyone else; and it’s much harder to believe that a friend would deceive you, so the tendency is to trust. It’s rare that a user will try to verify the information offered by a catfish for these reasons.

The sea grows wider

This discussion is relevant because as online dating sites grow in popularity, the act of entering into a relationship online is also gaining acceptance. Social networking sites provide a rich research venue for people who are interested in getting to know someone romantically—and the information may be more honestly presented here than in online dating sites as we try to capture our lives through personal photos, shares, and Likes. According to Pew Internet, 41% of social network site users have used a social networking site to get more information about a potential partner, and 18% have Friended someone because they wanted to date them. As our culture encourages us to widen our online networks, it may be time to begin to emphasize quality over quantity.

Have you been catfished? How did you find out? What do you think the trigger signs are that not all is as it seems?


You might also like:

Creeping Connectivity: Work and Life in a Hyper-Connected World

Don’t read the comments! (Why do we read the comments when we know they’ll be bad?)

What does it mean when we need to take a break from Facebook?

Oracles Past and Present: Our Means of Managing Information

References:

Caspi A, & Gorsky P (2006). Online deception: prevalence, motivation, and emotion. Cyberpsychology & behavior : the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behavior and society, 9 (1), 54-9 PMID: 16497118

Ellison, N., Heino, R., & Gibbs, J. (2006). Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11 (2), 415-441 DOI: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00020.x

Hancock, Jeffrey T. (2007–1–1) The truth about lying in online dating profiles. , 449. DOI: 10.1145/1240624.1240697

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. larkalt 6:32 pm 04/25/2014

    Many of your links aren’t working. They seem to have been mangled by SciAm software.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:51 pm 04/25/2014

    Thanks for letting me know! I’ve updated them so they should all work now.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Around the Web Digest: Week of April 20 | Savage Minds 1:42 pm 04/27/2014

    [...] A “catfish” is someone who creates fake social media profiles, usually for the purpose of romantic relationships. Krystal D’Costa explores what that means for today’s internet dating boom, and what Erving Goffman has to say about it. (Scientific American) [...]

    Link to this
  4. 4. URLs of wisdom (26th April) | Social in silico 1:03 pm 04/28/2014

    [...] Catfishing – the truth about deception online “The term catfish was made popular by the 2010 documentary film by the same name (which has also morphed into a series on MTV). It refers to a person who is intentionally deceptive when creating a social media profile, often with the goal of making a romantic connection.” [...]

    Link to this
  5. 5. Fished or Fishing? Internet Deception and “Catfishing” | What can you do with anthropology? 6:52 pm 04/29/2014

    [...] and popularized by Yanev Shulman, a filmmaker and former prey to an online catfish. In “Catfishing: The Truth About Deception Online”, New York anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa explains the phenomenon of these online false [...]

    Link to this
  6. 6. The Truth About Deception Online : The growing ... 2:53 pm 04/30/2014

    [...] The growing popularity of online datingThe dating scene has been changing over the last decade. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, approximately 6% of Internet users who are in a marriage or other committed relationship met online, compared to 3% who reported this in 2005. Additionally, 42% of Americans know someone who has used an online dating site or app, an increase of 11% from 2005, and 29% of Americans know someone who has met their partner through this medium, compared with 15% who made this claim in 2005.  [...]

    Link to this
  7. 7. Catfishing: The Truth About Deception Online | Anthropology in Practice, Scientific American Blog Network | A Penguin in the Orchard 6:13 pm 08/24/2014

    [...] Catfishing: The Truth About Deception Online | Anthropology in Practice, Scientific American Blog Ne… [...]

    Link to this
  8. 8. Getting Hooked For Dates, Minus the Catfish 3:30 am 09/3/2014

    [...] in your conversation with Sexbunny120 you feel that it’s not one hundred percent authentic, go with it.  The purpose of online dating is to seemingly give you a slew of options. There is no reason to [...]

    Link to this

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