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Online lies: Why creating a false persona is popular

By Paul Nelson | Posted - Jan 23rd, 2013 @ 10:08am

SALT LAKE CITY — Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te'o is preparing to break his silence about the controversy surrounding his non-existent girlfriend.

In an interview between Te'o and Katie Couric Wednesday, the Irish star maintained he believed Lennay Kekua was real and that she died Sept. 12. He said he only learned of hoax after receiving a phone call in December from a woman claiming to be his deceased girlfriend.

He claims to be the victim of an online hoax, a thing that's becoming known as a "catfish."

For many years, people have been looking for ways to escape their own lives and live a different one. Escaping reality is a thriving industry. Games like The Sims, Second Life and other massive multiplayer online games let people invent the persona they desire and interact with thousands of other people who want to do the same.

"When I meet another player in this game, I will actually interact with them in this character," said a man who plays Guild Wars 2. He wanted to stay anonymous, so we'll call him John.


John said he's very clear to other people that when he's playing, he's not himself. He said he actually has learned things about himself while he's in character.

"It becomes a richer experience that allows me to more fully understand the world (of the game)," he said.

Brad Ward used to play EverQuest. He said there have been a few times he was surprised when he was playing with what he thought was a woman.

"Then you hear them online and you're like, ‘Whoa, you're a dude?' (They answer), ‘Yeah,'" he said.

With all the benefits of making friends online, there are people who try to bring their online life into someone else's real life. Ward had a friend who fell in love with someone in their group. He had been pretending to be rich and not single.

"Then they met and she found out he wasn't rich and everything that he portrayed himself to be," he said.

Then, you have what happened with Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te'o. He made national news when the woman he professed to love turned out to be an online hoax.

But why would someone go through the trouble of creating a fake online personality and develop a personal relationship, or even fall in love, with someone online knowing they can never meet that person?

I think that some people, quite frankly, deal a lot better with fantasy relationships than real relationships.

–Dr. Mark Zelig

"I think that some people, quite frankly, deal a lot better with fantasy relationships than real relationships," said Psychologist Dr. Mark Zelig. "They're more in their comfort zone there. That gets them by."

The false online persona is becoming known as a "catfish." The term comes from a documentary called "Catfish" made by a man who fell in love with a woman he met online, only to find out she wasn't real.

Zelig said it's similar to the lying people used to do over the phone or on classified ads. He has seen plenty of his patients develop strong feelings for someone they met over the Internet. Convincing them they're being duped is hard to do.

"After a while, it becomes very obvious to me, and probably to a lot of their friends, that this person is not being truthful in one form or the other," Zelig said.

Even when the person learns the truth, Zelig said many of them miss the person they fell in love with, despite the fact that the person never existed.

"They have fallen in love with this and they're not willing to let go of it," he said.

Zelig said someone who is not being truthful about themselves online will always try to find an excuse why they can't meet face-to-face with one of their online friends. He said the longer they put off an actual meeting, the more likely it is they're being dishonest.

***This is part one of a two-part report. Thursday we'll take a look at the sinister side of "catfishing," and some ideas on how to spot a fake profile.

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