Deadspin dropped a bombshell this afternoon that one of the most popular, heartwarming stories of the college football season — Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's doomed love with a dying girl — was a hoax.
The girl, named Lennay Kekua, had a Twitter account, a stockpile of photos, and a great story — but none of it was real. The account was fake from the beginning. The photos were pulled from another girl's Facebook page, and doctored to dodge Google Image search. The story Te'o told of receiving a phone call from her deathbed before leading his team to victory after her death was fabricated out of thin air, possibly to help boost his unsuccessful campaign to win the Heisman Trophy.
@lovalovaloveyou nice to meet u too ma'am— Manti Te'o (@MTeo_5) October 10, 2011
Te'o claims he got duped along with the rest of us — that he fell in love with a woman he met online, and only lied about having met her in person. But whether he played a role in the original hoax or not, one thing's already clear: this was one of the biggest “catfish” hoaxes ever, and some of the most respected media outlets in sports came along for the ride. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times all covered the tragic story of Lennay Kekua without batting an eye. It's worth asking exactly how it happened. And in this case, Twitter seems to have played a big part in selling the lie.
"The online, social media nature of this hoax is hard for us, or hard for me, to get my arms around," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a press conference on Wednesday night.
Just writing under the same name for six months is more commitment than most liars can muster
Most writers will take a skeptical eye looking at a self-hosted website, but show us a long-maintained Facebook page or a well-networked Twitter account, and we usually trust whatever we find. Make your account private, as Lennay Kekua’s was, and there’s even less reason to be suspicious: spam and bot accounts usually want to be seen. Social media exists in a separate space with less connection to the unwired world. Just writing under the same name for six months is more commitment than most liars can muster, never mind the two years Kekua managed.
IF THE STORY HAD BEEN EASY TO CRACK, SOMEONE WOULD HAVE DONE IT
Ultimately, Deadspin was only able to break this story for the oldest reason in the world: somebody who knew what happened talked. It still took “an exhaustive related-images search of each of Lennay's images (most of which had been modified in some way to prevent reverse image searching)” to verify that they’d been pulled from one unaware person’s private Facebook and Instagram accounts.
And if someone asked you to prove that your Twitter handle was really you, how would you do it? Call them on the phone, maybe, or tweet a picture of yourself holding up your screen name. But Lennay did all that, whoever she was. And for a while, it worked. If Deadspin's "Ruth" hadn't sent in a tip, we'd all still be in the dark.
If nothing else, writers will Google a lot more names after this — but it's hard to know how that helps victims without a national profile. Twitter does verify people (mostly celebrities), but they won't say how they check on them first, and it's not hard to imagine a well-executed catfish slipping through the net. If you're really worried about being duped, you're stuck in a state of default mistrust, social media for the paranoid.
A state of default mistrust, social media for the paranoid
It's already taken hold in the particularly hoax-prone corners of the internet, and you can see it at work every time a stranger wanders onto Reddit. They’ve had their share of hoaxes, from fake suicides to fake cancer, and they’ve learned from it. Now if you’re claiming to be someone, they’ll ask you to prove it — even if you’re Dan Rather. It was awkward at first, but they haven’t had a hoax in a while and by now they’ve gotten used to it. It's a tough lesson to learn, but for anyone living on the internet, it's an important one.
Even more important is knowing that even good ID checks can be beaten. Kekua beat the photo test, and if we come up with a better one, someone else will someday beat that. As long as you’re dealing with digital strangers, not knowing is the cost of doing business. In some cases, that cost can get very, very high.