New MTV series Catfish captures its viewers hook, line and sinker; The reality show educates students on the potential dangers of major social media websites

by Katherine DeMarco
There is something that you want to change about yourself, something that you wish was different. You can fake your age, give or take a few years. Who will know for sure? You can lie about the activities you enjoy, the sports you play, even where you live.
Online, you can present yourself as you’ve always wanted to be.
But what about the people you may be deceiving with your invented persona?
As websites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace have grown, more men and women have been lying about themselves online. In a documentary called Catfish, filmmaker Nev Schulman recorded his experience of being deceived about the true identity of a person with whom he was having an online relationship. Now, two years later, he has created a related television series on MTV that investigates online relationships and exposes deception on the Internet.

Episodes begin when Schulman shares an e-mail from a person expressing qualms about an online relationship. He explains that there are several red flags indicating deception: the person is unwilling to send a casual photo and refuses to Skype, or he or she has only a few Facebook friends and  his or her photos don’t have tagged names.
After conducting an investigation, if Schulman discovers deception he sets up a face-to-face meeting between the two people.
The show does not dramatize the events, but portrays the real emotions going on at the time. Schulman tries to treat everyone with dignity and grace. He always hugs the people involved to relieve the tension and show that he understands their emotions.
While Schulman likes to give the deceived person power and control over as many aspects of the meeting as possible, he also gives the deceiver a chance to explain their reasoning for the deception.
Overall, Schulman comes off as a person who wants to help repair a bad situation rather than capitalize on it. “He’s trying to help people find who they think they’re in love with because he has been through it. He’s supportive and helpful to others,” said sophomore Raquel Lewis.
Recently, a Catfish-like incident made national headlines with the story of Manti Te’o, an All-American linebacker at the University of Notre Dame. A couple of months ago, after announcing that his grandmother and his girlfriend died on the same day, he went on to play one of the best games of his career. Multiple media outlets picked up the moving and motivational story.
In January, the website Deadspin revealed that the girlfriend, whom Te’o knew only online, never existed. Te’o had been the victim of an elaborate hoax.  Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had created a false Twitter account to trick Te’o  into believing he was in a relationship with a girl named Lennay Kekua.
Being catfished is generally an avoidable experience.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Schulman offered tips to people involved in online relationships, starting with conducting a simple Google search.
“It didn’t really appear that there was any record of [Te’o’s girlfriend] being alive or going to school or her car accident or anything like that. If someone had simply spent a few minutes, or perhaps an hour or two Google-searching her, that might have had become apparent,” he said.
He also strongly advises insisting on conversation over webcams or Skype.
The ratings for Catfish have increased significantly since the Manti Te’o scandal.  It was even parodied on Saturday Night Live, with host Adam Levine taking on the role of Schulman.
On the real show, the filmed encounters between the victims and deceivers are often entertaining.
“It’s funny when they find out who the person really is.  Their facial reactions are hilarious,” said sophomore Diamond Carrington.
But the show also teaches students valuable lessons about Internet safety. “People don’t realize that having virtual relationships can lead to many problems or even death because you don’t really know the person who is talking to you,” said junior Adriana Huaman.
Catfish touches on a subject familiar to students – the power of social media.  The reality series is a warning that Internet deceit can happen to anyone.