How would you feel if you found out strangers — complete and total strangers — were using photos of you to fool others into thinking they were someone they weren’t?
Probably terrified, and slightly grossed out. Maybe more than slightly.
The term for this is “Catfishing,” pretending you’re someone you aren’t online, creating a digital life that could not be duplicated in the real world, and immersing yourself inside of it.
Often times, unsuspecting people that Catfish meet and pursue online, often romantically, end up being duped.
The MTV show by the same name, based on the documentary of the same name, features this happening to people over and over again.
It’s become such a cultural phenomenon that it’s hard to understand why anyone who developed a relationship with someone online who then refused to take the relationship face-to-face wouldn’t be immediately suspicious of this person’s true identity.
Almost always, this person is not who they say they are.
But what about the people they’re pretending to be? Often the photos Catfish use are not stock images, those are too obvious, but rather photos of beautiful people grabbed from the public offerings of Facebook or Instagram or Flickr.
Unless you have absolutely no digital footprint, it’s likely that you have an innocent photo or two of yourself available on the internet for public consumption.
What happens if those photos get into the wrong hands?
Such is the case of what happened to Ellie Flynn, who documented in VICE what happened when someone did this to her.
Flynn writes that it became the norm to be approached by strangers, most always men, calling her by various names.
Over the years, my friends and I have met a number of young men who’ve spent a substantial amount of time chatting to fake me — or fake versions of one of my friends — online. They often demand we show some form of ID to prove our surnames aren’t “Colarossi,” or “Rose,” or “Morrison,” and each time they’re left disappointed. The boy from Malia had been speaking to “Chia” every night on the phone for two months. He believed he was in love with her. I couldn’t help but feel for him — though I did find it odd his suspicions hadn’t been raised by the fact this cyber charlatan apparently had a family emergency to attend to literally every time they were due to meet.
Flynn and her group of friends are all together victims of Catfishing. All of their photos posted to the internet have been taken and used on fake profiles across various social networks.
“Every photo we upload is re-posted to Facebook by our respective fake accounts; every job we start is updated on our profiles; every tweet is repeated,” she writes for VICE. “It’s so believable that I’ve genuinely considered whether or not there’s a parallel group of everyone I know (with slightly different second names) living somewhere in Halifax.”
For a while, the girls thought it was kind of funny, assuming it would stop after the imposters got bored. But to the contrary, things actually got worse, more intricate, more frightening. Flynn recalls a time a man showed up to the girls’ college dorm demanding to meet “Chia,” which, of course, meant the Catfisher knew where the women lived.
The person behind the fake “Chia” account has also tweeted over 36,000 times; dedication in any context.
“That’s a tweet an hour for more than four years,” Flynn points out.
Finally, Ellie decided to confront the woman behind the fake “Charlotte” account, who was more than willing to chat with her. What pans out is something you see a lot on MTV’s “Catfish.”
Those role-playing as others are doing so to fill a void they fill in their real lives. They’re aware what they’re doing is wrong, but they don’t know how to stop…and they also don’t want to. They live vicariously through the lives of the people they have created online, and abandoning their “characters” would feel as though they were killing a little piece of themselves.
After Flynn talked to fake “Charlotte,” the person behind fake “Georgina” reached out.
It’s uncertain, Flynn says, whether every single fake account (all 60 of the them) are meticulously maintained by the same person.
Nevertheless, here was the message from “Georgina”:
Hey, basically I just wanted to let you know that I am really sorry for the fake accounts I have made of you and your friends on fb/twitter. It has taken me a while but I’ve finally realised how sick and f—ed up it is. I guess I just enjoyed living your lives a bit more than my own. I really am truly sorry and just wanted to make you aware that as of now I promise they are all going to be permanently deleted, it just isn’t right of me to carry this on at all and I thought it would be the right thing to do for me to apologise to you and your friends. If you wanna reply to me being abusive and what not then I completely understand.
“Despite her pledge,” Flynn writes, “the profiles remain very much active.”
It’s been 8 years.
So what happens when you report this kind of situation to Facebook or Twitter?
The social networks’ rules are in the favour of the girls, but Flynn says that whenever a profile would get deleted, a new one would pop up days or weeks later.