When American footballer Manti heard the voice of the cyber-girlfriend he thought was dead last December, he must have little expected it to escalate into a inquiry over whether he was a victim of a hoax or a willing participant. The “girlfriend” Te’o had been dating online was in fact a man, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who later revealed on Dr Phil that he had been “dating” Te’o as Lennay Kekua -- and Te’o was unaware of the hoax.
Te’o had fallen victim to what is known as “catfishing”, a term derived from the 2010 documentary Catfish. A catfish is someone who creates fake profiles online, pretending to be someone they are not, by using someone else’s information, then use social media to meet people.
The film came out of a similar experience faced by Yaniv Shulman. Shulman, aka Nev, realised there was something fishy about his online relationship with a young woman named Megan and documented it with his brother Ariel. And so was born the film, which was critcised as being faked.
However, it doesn’t mean what was not successful on the big screen can’t make it big on the small screen. The Shulman brothers, along with friend and cinematographer Max Joseph, listened to pleas for help from fans of the film who had their own online relationships, and created the docudrama series of the same name for MTV, already cleared for a second season in the US, and starting in the UAE tonight.
“I know what happened because I was there. So I don’t really pay much attention to the people who think they know more than me about my life,” an unfazed Nev told tabloid! over the phone from New York. “There’s been no proof since the movie came out that anything is fake and the film has been featured on a number of very legitimate news programmes and magazines that have discussed how the film was real. So, it’s just a waste of time. The rumours on the internet are just that – rumours. And the show is just as real because obviously my experience was real and I’m not alone”.
However, in an interview with ESPN last month about the Te’o incident, Nev preferred to “reserve judgement in these sort of cases as long as I can because it’s really hard to know until all the facts have come out”. He however agreed that maybe Te’o was aware of the catfishing sooner than he let on.
The show is a series of stories of people who wrote in to team Nev and Max asking for advice on their online relationships.
“It was clear that this was something happening to many people and was an issue to be dealt with,” says Nev. “I had become a sort of poster child for internet dating and online romance and thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the topic.”
“The show is about bringing together people who’ve been dating online from one month to ten years but have actually never met each other -- and often times never seen one another live,” said Max. “So what we do is we go to one person’s home to meet them, then we take them on a trip to meet the person on the other end of the internet, the person they’ve been talking to. Along the way we also do some research ourselves on the person on how much they’ve been telling is actually true or not. That is the catfish”.
Nev and Max explain they more or less use the same techniques to research about the catfish but go blind into each relationship.
“It’s important to say that we don’t know anything about the story or the situation at all until we meet the first person at their home,” continued Max. “The person tells us whatever they want to about their relationship and the person they’ve been talking to. Nev and I are basically in the same position as the audience would be in at this point. Then when the person asks us to do some research on the other, we research them on the internet, a process that can take anywhere from 6-9 hours. “It’s very intense to film every episode because we get so involved in the subject and the catfish’s lives,” says Max. “For five days we are completely immersed in one person’s life, we learn everything that’s going on in their lives. We are really there to help them and support them during this journey to confront the person they’ve been talking to. So when things are going tense emotionally, it can become quite intense for us as well”.
“The idea is to help people involved in the relationship to find out the truth and move forward with their lives whether that’s into a relationship or away from it. The idea is to get some answers and some closure. There are still so many who need our help and ask for it constantly,” says Nev.
Box: Nev and Max’s tips on online dating
Do a simple Google search of the person’s name
Check if they work at a real place
Check their Facebook page. If they have less than 100 friends, that should set a few alarm bells ringing
Also check the photos on their Facebook page. If they have lots of friends in the pictures but none of them are tagged, then it’s something to worry about
If they say they are a model or a doctor of any kind, that’s a red flag. Modelling is a glamorous profession so people generally lie about it.
Above all, be assertive, says Nev. “Don’t feel badly if, after some time, you start to like somebody and they have yet to prove to you that they are who they say they are. Really press them because I hate seeing people waste time in these online relationships when they turn out to be deception. You are allowed to ask for proof or some kind of a video call or meeting up. Whether you want to stay friends is one thing but if you are feeling something more, then it’s ok to be a little more assertive”.
Catfish premieres on MTV today at 11.10pm, with repeats on Friday at midnight, Saturday at 11.10pm and Sunday at 1.30am.