The one that should get away

The one that should get away

By Jeff Gire

CSA Images/Printstock Collection
Internet ethicist Irina Raicu speaks about the right to online anonymity and preparing a generation of Net users against hoaxes.

If there’s an early candidate for 2013’s word of the year, it would have to be catfishing. The term entered the popular lexicon after college football star Manti Te’o made headlines when his tragic romance with an online girlfriend was discovered to be a hoax.

The Te’o episode has brought up questions of identity, Internet culture, and ethics. Irina Raicu, the Internet ethics program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, recently spoke about the right to anonymity online and how best to prepare a generation of Net users against scams and hoaxes like catfishing.


The Internet is full of opportunities to create a second identity, whether that’s on a message board or online game. When does the curation of a second identity cross into unethical territory?

In forums like online games, everyone understands the use of second identities, which are sometimes as obvious as the use of cartoonlike avatars. What’s interesting to me in this case is that this was an attempt not to create a second identity but to assume a false first identity, to try and pass a fabrication off as a real person.

This isn’t an attempt to play, or to try and figure out who you are, but rather an attempt to deceive. So an ethical line has been crossed pretty quickly.

The simplest way to explain it is with the old adage, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Would you want this to be done unto you? No, clearly.

Do social media platforms or the targets of catfishing share in any of the responsibility for the fraud?

People do need to be savvy, but we’re also all not equally likely to either do this or be the victim of such behavior. And I think the people who fall victim to this are particularly vulnerable. So to just tell them, “Man up and be more savvy,” is not enough.

Thinking about Te’o—assuming his account of the situation is accurate—he was asked why he fell so hard for this girl in particular. He said that it was because she was a sophomore like him and she was Polynesian. That made me think, “Here’s this kid from Hawaii who winds up in South Bend, Indiana. How many Polynesians are around there? How many Mormons like him?”

So, and this might get into psychology, I think it’s people who feel out of place and don’t have a sense of community that feel particularly needy or vulnerable and may become likely victims.

Should social networks be doing more to verify identities of users?

As far as social networks doing more to verify identities, I have a problem with that—especially in the context of our personal data being collected, aggregated, sold, and analyzed, which many people feel is an invasion of privacy.

In fact, one of the ways that people are fighting back is by putting false information on sites like Facebook. It’s one of the few ways they can fight back, by muddying the waters.

I also don’t think that the social networks would, no matter how much they try to, be able to accurately keep track of identities.

How important is it to preserve the ability to remain anonymous in light of others abusing this power to behave deceitfully?

I see this ability as a necessity at this point. It didn’t have to be this way, but because of the way the online advertising model has developed, no one ever made the terms of these free services, like social networks, clear. The arguments for why targeted ads would be beneficial for consumers, or why the collection of your data in exchange for a service is a benefit, were never made publically.

I would have felt much better about this exchange of personal data for a service if these arguments had been made—instead of first offering free services and then collecting and selling data. So that strikes me as very unethical.

In this context, while it’s not good for people to lie, I understand why they would do so on a social network—and people are doing it more and more. There was a Pew research study a couple years ago that tracked the number of people lying on Facebook profiles as having grown in recent years from 10 percent to 25.

What’s the responsibility of parents or schools to make sure that kids are growing up with an awareness of these online issues?

Sometimes parents are in the worst position to teach their kids, because they understand these networks even less than the kids. But there are increasing efforts in schools to educate kids about being safe online, sometimes as early as grade school.

People like Te’o may have missed out on this education, but they still use these technologies daily. Hopefully we’ll see less of these stories in the future, and the increased awareness may be a benefit of Te’o’s story. Catfishing has been around for a while, but now it’s prevalent in the news, so maybe people will become more wary and, instead of carrying on a three-year online relationship, they’ll attempt to maybe meet someone in person after a month.

Is there anything about the culture on the Internet that fosters scams like catfishing?

I was wondering, “Is this really just an Internet thing?” We’ve had people posing as other people forever, like Cyrano de Bergerac. Was Cyrano catfishing? After all, he was posing as someone else in order to find love. But I decided that wasn’t the case, because the point of Cyrano’s story was that the girl should see through appearances to the real person.

In these catfishing relationships, it’s not like the person assuming a false identity comes out after three years and goes to the victim and confesses, “This is the person you’ve opened up to and been conversing with, you should love me.” There’s never that kind of connection to the real person.

Do you ultimately favor Internet anonymity if the trade-off is that it can empower certain people’s bad intentions?

It’s important to preserve the ability to not be your true self online, but that means the Internet is not about reciprocity in the way that real life is. In this way, the Internet is limited.

Irina Raicu is the Internet ethics program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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