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'Catfish' Stars Share Insight Into Manti Te'o Saga

10:10 PM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
SOUTH BEND, IN - Manti T'eo #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish keeps an eye on the game against the BYU Cougars at Notre Dame Stadium on October 20, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated BYU 17-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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(USA TODAY BY Rachel George)  Nev Schulman introduced "catfishing" to the world in his 2010 documentary, "Catfish," which chronicled his experience of being duped by an online girlfriend. 

An MTV show, "Catfish: The TV Show," created with Max Joseph has drawn more attention to the growing trend, but it's the case of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o that has drawn attention.

It was revealed on Wednesday by Deadspin that Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who reportedly died within hours of Te'o's grandmother in September, never existed. 

It was all a hoax, one perpetrated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, according to the report. The 22-year-old Californian seems to know Te'o in some way, raising questions about his involvement in the hoax - which became part of an emotional storyline as he led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season and finished runner-up in Heisman Trophy balloting.

With "catfishing" drawing plenty of attention following the revelation of Te'o's online-and-phone-only relationship with someone he thought to be his girlfriend, Schulman and Joseph answered questions from USA TODAY Sports about the show, "catfishing" in general and Te'o in particular.


Here is a transcript of that interview:

USA TODAY: What has the response been since the Manti Te'o story broke?

Max Joseph: Really, what's been going on is America is really becoming, is getting tuned in to something that we've known now for a while, which is that this is not an isolated phenomenon. It happens all the time all over the country, and in fact, all over the world. When the film came out, Nev pretty much believed this was a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of event. Once it came out, he started receiving thousands and thousands of emails from people who said they believed the same thing was happening to them, is happening to them, and that they were kind of too embarrassed to tell anyone about it until they saw his story. Basically, since then, that gave birth to the show and now we both receive hundreds and hundreds of emails a week from people desperate to find out if this person they're talking to is real or not and whether or not we can help them. So this is not at all a new phenomenon. It's been going on for a while, and I think it just hit the tipping point.


USAT: Have you noticed any quantifiable increases in the messages you've received, interactions on Twitter, etc.?

Nev Schulman: Absolutely. For starters, it was Twitter that in fact got me involved in this. Of course, the athletic director mentioned the show and the movie, but it was my connection to the story through Twitter that sort of got me hooked. I've had my highest retweeted tweet to date when I sort of first learned of the story and I mentioned that I was sort of on the case, which I have been. People were really excited that I was not only aware of it, but that I was involved and looking into it. And of course, what's really been interesting to see is a community of people, primarily football fans, who haven't really heard of Catfish - the film or the show - who are now turned on to this idea and are aware of it. So there's definitely been a huge surge in my followers. I've been receiving mentions from people both on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of sports news syndicates picked up my tweet, and I sort of strangely become a figurehead in the sports world - which was never an area that I thought that my name would be on the tip of everyone's tongue.

USAT: What kind of increase in followers are we talking?

NS: Not Kim Kardashian, but in the last 24 hours, I think I've had about 20,000 new Twitter followers.

USAT: For the people who are still learning about this through this story, explain "catfishing" and the motivations for why people do it.

MJ: What a catfish is is someone who creates a fake online profile in order to pursue romantic relationships online. The reasons why they do it are varied, and in fact, one thing that is always hard for us to find, it's usually the last piece of the puzzle, is the motivation for why the catfish does it. Generally - and this is a broad generalization - the catfish is oftentimes unhappy with an aspect of their life or an aspect of themselves, whether they have low self-esteem, they're insecure, they don't like the way they look, they don't like their job or their life situation. So they create basically a fantasy version of their life online. They create a fake profile that has all of the attributes of the person they wish they were or would like to be, which is an amazing thing because people can start interacting with that person and in fact fall in love with that person.

But that's just one type of motivation. Sometimes it could start as a joke that becomes something bigger, or sometimes someone goes on a dating site and they're a little embarrassed to put up pictures of themself and instead put up a picture of someone else with a different name just to kind of protect themselves. And before they know it, they're having an actual relationship with someone online and it's too late to tell them that they've lied and they just kind of dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. Another motivation could be something as sinister as revenge, to get revenge on someone that they know to tie them up and distract them from something else that might be going on in their life. Motivation is a very hard thing to gauge, and it really varies from case to case.

USAT: Nev, you tweeted that you've had contact with the woman involved in the story. Who were you referring to? What did that entail?

NS: Basically, as soon as the story broke and I realized that I had been indicated in the article, I went to my Catfish Nev Gmail account - which is where I send people to send both fan mail as well as requests for relationship help. And just on a hunch, I figured if she had tweeted at me perhaps she had also emailed me. I searched for Donna in my email, the same Donna Tei who had apparently tweeted at me. And sure enough, from Dec. 9 I had an email where she simply reached out indicating that she discovered that her photos were being used as part of a hoax. Obviously, at the time it was not a major national news story like it is now. But she became aware of someone using her photos and was hoping that I could in some way help as she had obviously knew it was something that I'm familiar with.

USAT: At that time, she just knew someone was using her photos. Since then, what has she been able to and have you been able to find out?

NS: When she emailed me, she herself was pretty confident that she knew who was behind the fake profile that had been using her pictures. And so I reached out to her in an effort to just connect, and I actually have not heard back from her. Nothing's changed via my relationship with Donna. It's just a piece of information that I think is interesting and gives some time reference to all of this as the email came shortly after much of the controversy surrounding Lennay's death occurred.

USAT: Did she indicate who she thought was using her photo?

NS: She identified Ronaiah, a gentleman who's been indicated quite a bit already in the case.

USAT: On the show it always seems like there are a lot of red flags raised and you're skeptical while the people on your show are not. How do you handle that? Why don't people see them as reason for caution?

NS: I think that one thing people easily sort of forget is that when looking at an online correspondence that spans months or years, in a snapshot or getting a summary, it seems very easy to look at a series of events and say, 'Wow, look at how these things compiled together didn't seem clear that this is somehow a hoax or fake.' But for people living this story and communicating on a day-to-day basis and receiving lots of information, much of which is insignificant - like, I'm painting my nails or I'm just walking my dog - all of those regular day-to-day stuff, they simply get mixed in with all of the dramatic red flag events. At the time, it doesn't seem like such an unusual thing and then a couple weeks go by and nothing happens and then something else happens. As it trickles through to these people, each individual event as a standalone clearly may not seem like an obvious red flag.

MJ: It's kind of like the frog boiling in water syndrome, it happens so gradually and slowly that you don't even realize it's happening. Another thing I will say to add to what Nev said - and I think we all experience this in relationships - when you're in a relationship, you're in it because you're getting something out of the relationship. You're getting something out of the exchange with the other person that's obviously very important, some sort of emotional satisfaction or gratification. And that is generally taking priority from the voice in your head saying, this person might be fake, this person might be fake. If you're getting what you want out of the relationship, then you're generally not searching for reasons to doubt a person's identity.

Also, voice is a persuasive tool. When you're hearing someone's voice on the phone and you're talking for hours and hours and hours, most people think that they can tell whether someone's lying or not by the sound of their voice. And so it's very easy to trust someone that you spend hours talking to. So if you're talking to someone and you're getting your emotional needs met out of the relationship and you enjoy being in love and what the other person has to say, then the voice in your head saying, 'This person might not be real,' it's very quiet.

USAT: From what you know of the Te'o story, what stood out as possible red flags that in the moment he wouldn't have been suspicious of but when you look at it now, it seems fairly obvious?

MJ: One thing we really don't know, we don't know a lot of the details about how they related to one another. We don't know how many times Manti asked her to get together with him. 'Let's meet up for the weekend,' and she came up with an excuse not to. We don't know a lot of those things, which really would be important to know in terms of identifying red flags. Certain red flags we often find though, the biggest red flag is generally serious accidents or grave illness that either befall the catfish themselves or people close to them. Because serious illness or accidents provide the perfect excuse to not meet up and to basically tell the other person to back off and stop asking questions because this is a sensitive topic, you don't want to pry too much. It kind of stops curiosity dead in its tracks because you want to respect the other person's boundaries.

Obviously, someone struggling with leukemia and getting into a car accident - I know it happened the other way around - the succession of these very extreme events would be a red flag.

NS: It's easier to say now obviously looking back, but from what I can say, it looks like whoever is behind all of this either followed Manti's career closely or may have in fact known him because they had a way of missing him, that they had met and that perhaps they had been at certain events together. And I'm sure they used specific reference that they either found through social media, fan pages or Instagram feeds, to indicate that there was a real, physical closeness at times.

USAT: Nev, you reached out to Te'o via Twitter. What, if any, response have you received? Do you believe him? Was he duped or in on it?

NS: I have not heard back from Manti, and I assume that with all of this going on right now, it's unlikely he's even been on Twitter or would even have the time to respond. My gut feeling, which of course is known to be wrong, is that he got involved in this unknowingly and that his relationship with Lennay was organic and legitimate. But that perhaps he was aware of the fact that his relationship could be somewhat false and was a little bit hesitant to get into the details of it, and even possibly at first really call this person a girlfriend. But when the story sort of turned into what it is, he may have become aware of certain things because if people were getting in touch with me about this guy, Ronaiah, and his fake profile, I imagine that they would also maybe be trying to get in touch with Manti.

I have a feeling he may have known about it sooner. We also know that he didn't mention some of the information that he was aware of to Notre Dame until two weeks after. But, again, my gut feeling is that he's a victim here. I don't think he was in on it from the beginning. I don't think it was some scheme for him to get media attention in an effort to win the Heisman Trophy, and maybe that's because I'm hopeful in believing because that's not the case because I think that would really be devastating. That's just my gut.

MJ: I agree with Nev to a large extent. I also think playing football at the level that he's playing, and in the heat of the moment a couple days after the deaths of both Lennay and his grandmother, to be able to kind of perform the way he performed, if it was in fact an act, then he is quite a good actor. I feel like those things are generally hard to falsify.

I do think there are some curious aspects, though. His friendship with Ronaiah definitely raises an eyebrow as well as the fact that he might have known about the fact that this is a scam well before he told anyone. And that could have been because he was embarrassed or maybe even that he didn't know about it a long time even before that. But I do believe it could have started in earnest.


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