Something’s (cat) fishy

I’m involved in online deceit — and I had no idea.

by Bronwyn Miller

When we were growing up, creepers online had it pretty easy. With a less sophisticated Internet, chat rooms were the main platform for “meeting” new people. The identities people presented were largely unverifiable. As a result, deceiving others was as easy as fabricating your age, sex and location information — but thanks to Chris Hansen, we all knew to be on the lookout for predators.

At first blush, today’s Internet discourages elaborate deception. After all, it seems to require continuity of selves more than ever before. For most of us, our online identities are grounded in reality, reflecting our offline personas and boosting our established networks. It seems impossible that anyone could cover all their necessary tracks to create a believable-but-fake online personality. However, as infamous girlfriend hoax victim Manti Te’o and a new MTV reality show, “Catfish: The TV Show,” illustrate, online identity manipulation is alive and well — and it’s reaching new levels of complexity.

Thanks to the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” being the victim of an online dupe is now often labeled as “getting catfished.” The film follows the story of how New York City-based photographer Nev Schulman gets involved in a relationship with a Michigan woman named Megan, communicating online and through texts and phone calls. However, her story slowly unravels in the film, such as when Nev realizes “her” songs were actually lifted from YouTube, and it is eventually revealed that a bored housewife was behind an elaborate docket of characters presented to Nev, including Megan. The title of the documentary now serves as the buzzword to describe a person who crafts a fake Internet persona.

For people who are engaging in an arguably postmodern form of communication, it seems paradoxical that they are so shocked when they are hoodwinked by a stranger. If we are comfortable enough with these technologies that we are willing to virtually engage in intimacy, shouldn’t we also know how to appropriately evaluate the information we are given? Simple steps using the very tools that put us in these modern predicaments, like cross-referencing social media presences, can help avoid humiliation and heartbreak.

Another way to verify an online suitor’s identity is to utilize the Google tool that allows for searching an image — just one of the glories of the 21st century. Out of curiosity, I ran one of my Facebook photos. The results included photo captures of Twilight scenes and a shot of an equestrian team. Strange, but nothing to worry about. I tried one more photo: the avatar for the Myspace profile I had in high school.

My stomach turned when I saw the results. As it turns out, my picture is being used for the profile of a certain “Antonio Venuti” on both Pinterest and Twitter, where he (?) happens to have a solid 110 more followers than I do. Seeing my photo repeatedly lined up with someone else’s words is more than disconcerting; I feel violated, uneasy and angry.

Looks like even those of us who think we’re safe from online hoaxers because we steer clear of starting relationships online can fall victim to modern invasions of privacy. Despite my deliberate attempts to keep my online profiles at a maximum security level, I’ve been hit with a harsh reality check: What I thought was my own on the Internet no longer belongs to me.