On catfishes and catfishing

I learned a new word last week. It was catfish. Merriam Webster has yet to bless it with inclusion in the collegiate dictionary. But no worries, Urban Dictionary already has a definition. A catfish is “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.”

The concept is not new. We just didn’t call it catfishing. We used words like bamboozle, hoodwink, dupe, or beguile. However, none of these have the media flare that catfish has acquired. It is Nev Schulman’s claim to fame, and the source of Manti T’eo’s newfound notoriety. He was catfished, and so were ESPN and Sports Illustrated, among others. The reason? No one in those organizations fact checked T’eo’s story. I can only wonder if the people involved ever glanced at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. You don’t even have to read the whole thing. All you need to know is summarized in this sentence, found at the very beginning of the document: “A journalist should test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”

That’s right. They should test the accuracy of information from all sources, including star athletes with feel good stories. Quoting Hampton Stevens, a Kansas City-based writer, their failure to fact check “is simply pathetic.”

But what about the rest of us? Have we developed what Hemingway called “a built-in automatic crap detector”? If we haven’t, we should. We need a crap detector to sort through the vast amounts of information that come to us every single day. Otherwise, we are just as likely to get hoodwinked as anyone else. It probably won’t be some elaborate ruse that might earn us a spot on Catfish: The TV Show, but think of the other smaller hoaxes that often populate our Facebook feeds.

Take for example the Facebook copyright notice message. It claims to be a magic cloak against copyright infringement. The message certainly sounds legal enough. It includes words like “communiqué,” and names of official sounding documents like the “Berner” [sic] Convention, the Uniform Commercial Code of the United States, and the Rome Statute. First of all, it’s the Berne Convention.  Even worse, The Rome Statute doesn’t even include the word copyright in its text, which makes sense. The only point of the Rome Statute was creating the International Criminal Court. They’re the ones who would prosecute Joseph Kony… if he ever gets caught. I didn’t even try to find out what the UCC said. Just googling the Rome Statute was enough.

I can’t imagine anyone being taken in by a Nigerian scam anymore, can you? Yet we are very willing to “share” a photo because Nolan Daniels said he would give us money from his powerball earnings. Unfortunately, Mr. Daniels never won the Powerball. Sharing his picture got us nothing at all.  We may as well work for ESPN.

Cyanara Medina is a visiting professor in the department of communication.