The Banality of the Manti Te'o Hoax

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Deception is part of every relationship, online and off.

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Te'o said in an ESPN interview on Friday, "When they hear the facts they'll know. They'll know there is no way I could be a part of this." (AP Photo/ESPN Images, Ryan Jones)

The recent case of Manti Te'o and his nonexistent girlfriend has generated a fair amount of discussion, most of if focused on the question of whether Manti was duped or a willing participant in the hoax. We may never know the truth regarding that particular question, but one thing is clear: This sort of hoax is not uncommon, and it cries out for some sort of explanation and understanding. How can people fall in love with someone they never even met?—indeed, someone that never even existed?

First let's be clear that if Manti was the innocent victim of an Internet hoax it wouldn't be that unusual. The MTV show Catfish is dedicated to the task of determining whether someone's virtual love interest is legitimate or a hoax (and the show's producers have no shortage of cases to investigate). On a personal level, I have a friend that fell victim to this sort of deception, and the teenage son of another friend was also taken in by someone pretending to be an online love interest. Like Manti Te'o, both of these people were attractive and would be considered legitimate "catches" in the dating world. I don't know that they could have as many options as a football star like Manti, but they had more options than any one person would need. So why would they fall for simulacra?

One thought is that when we engage with someone online, the information we get from him or her is low bandwidth and it is open textured, meaning that it is incomplete, vague, and ambiguous. By contrast, when we meet someone in real life we take in a tremendous amount of information about how they appear, how they carry themselves, how they speak, dress, etc. Electronically mediated communication carries a lot of information, but it is clearly impoverished compared to what we can get from first person contact. When the human mind receives incomplete information it doesn't perceive an incomplete canvass—it fills in the blanks. From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense. We want to perceive predators and food sources in conditions where we have incomplete perceptual information. But in some cases we fill in the blanks incorrectly and in other cases we engage in a kind of wish projection.

I have seen the Facebook chat logs from one victim of Catfish-style deception, and to my eyes the record was surprisingly spare. There was just too much missing from the communications coming from the deceiver. Of course the victim didn't see it this way; he was filling in the blanks himself and that is what made the connection so powerful—the deceived could project anything he wanted, and he used the open canvass to project the kind of partner he most desired. Of course the hoaxer played along, letting the victim paint whatever picture he desired and affirming that picture at critical junctures.

But there is another point to be made. Let's suppose it is true that Manti Te'o was genuinely a victim of Catfish-style deception. What are the alternatives he was passing up in the real world? Were the potential partners crossing his path genuine? Were they seeing him for what he really was or for the brand that he had become—Notre Dame's big man on campus? We all want to be seen for who (we think) we really are, but there is no guarantee that meeting someone in meatspace and shaking his or her hand guarantees this.

I think this phenomenon played a role in the cases of deception that I am personally familiar with. In one case it was a beautiful woman who was being seen as just that by everyone who met her. The other was an attractive, exceptionally wealthy young man. Sometimes appearances can typecast you and online relationships allow you to break out of your traditional role. Thus, not only does the online world allow you to project your desires onto your partner, but you can also control how they see you. With a willing virtual partner you can engage in a collaborative work of fiction in which you are allowed to rewrite yourself as the kind of person you wish to be (or perhaps really are).

I framed this discussion by comparing the relative bandwidth of our real world and virtual relationships, but this is a difference in degree, not in kind. On closer scrutiny you might think the relationships really aren't that much different in the real world. We don't need computers to project misleading or dishonest pictures of ourselves (nor to be taken in by such pictures). Everyone knows how to play a role that will ingratiate them with another.

Finally, we all know what it is like when a relationship fails and someone who was once close becomes distant and behaves differently towards us. We say, "I just don't know you anymore." But the fact of the matter is that in the real world as in the virtual world we project different "avatars" to different people; we also engage in works of collaborative fiction with others in the real world as we knit together stories about who we are as individuals and as a couple. And then, as we have all experienced, sometimes the narrative collapses and one partner walks away. When this happens we are apt to think ill of the other person, or we suppose they changed. But when we say, "I just don't know you anymore," what we mean is that we don't know the new avatar. And for all practical purposes the avatar we fell in love with died with the work of collaborative fiction.

If Manti Te'o really was an innocent victim of deception it wouldn't be surprising, and there is really nothing all that special about the fact that online communications played a role in this particular instance. Manti also should not be embarrassed about what happened. Whether online or offline, the same thing has happened to all of us. And probably more than once.

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Peter Ludlow is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. He writes on a broad range of topics, including conceptual issues in virtual worlds and the nature of computer-mediated communication.

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