This September, Channel 4 launched a new reality show, ‘The Circle’, in which contestants aim to become the most popular player to avoid getting ‘blocked’ and ultimately win a whopping £50,000. The catch; they will never meet. Because of this, contestants can manipulate their profile in any way they want, presenting themselves as an entirely different person. They communicate exclusively through the specifically designed social media hub ‘The Circle’, allowing them to disclose whatever information they see fit, whether that’s the honest truth or a blatant lie.

But the beauty of ‘The Circle’ – the other contestants will never know. One prime example of this deception, which the twenty first century now describes as ‘catfishing’, is the 26-year-old contestant Alex using pictures of his real life girlfriend to pose as the constructed persona ‘Kate’.

As we live through this technology-dependent era, ‘The Circle’ presents us with a fun reality show for the social media age, whilst also highlighting the very real dangers of it. Though we watch with anticipated excitement as players manage to convince other contestants of their fake personas, they have the definitive advantage of expecting such manipulation. Every contestant is aware of the very real possibility that other players are actively lying to them in order to gain popularity and be in with a chance of winning the prize money. They are also aware that, at the end of the show they will be able to step out from behind their screens and find out who they have really been talking to for the duration of the show and those players who opted for catfishing techniques will finally be exposed.

The term ‘catfishing’ first rose to significance with the release of the eponymously named 2010 documentary, featuring the experience of one Nev Schulman. In 2007 Schulman began communicating online with who he believed to be an eight year old girl named Abby, and through her met Abby’s older sister, Megan. He developed a burgeoning relationship with Megan, eventually falling in love with her and venturing on a surprise visit to finally meet her in her hometown of Michigan. What Schulman didn’t know was that Megan was actually a troubled housewife called Angela.

Since then, MTV has produced a spin-off series presented by Schulman, detailing other people’s experiences of catfishing. The first series seemed to fixate on the less malicious forms of catfishing, following those struggling with their own identity such as a transgender youth who used the deception as a means of exploring and seeking identity.

Despite the show’s example of catfishing at its least problematic, there are a lot more ruthless incidences where people can be scammed out of thousands. Online dating presents a prominent threat of what has been labelled as ‘romance fraud’, in which people are duped by fake profiles to believe they are entering into legitimate relationships. This is usually followed by them being manipulated into transferring innumerable amounts of funds to who they believe to be their online significant other. The BBC found that, in just 2016 alone, there were 3,889 victims of romance fraud, who were unknowingly manipulated out of an astonishing £39 million. Victims are crying out for harsher laws and consequences for those choosing to abuse social media in this way but the question is, how can this be done?

Simply lying about who you are online doesn’t yet warrant any legal consequences, and for good reason. There are instances where it is understandable for people to want to disguise  their identity, for example, victims of domestic abuse. For those people it is imperative to be able to hide who they are online in order to remain safe. Alongside issues of data protection and freedom of expression, it would be impossible to implement any such legal obligations to declare truthfully who you are online. Currently there are no laws in place specifically relating to catfishing and its implications, however there are crossovers between other crimes, such as fraud, which can incur punishment.

The question this form of deception brings to the surface is: why do people do it? Romance fraud has its own obvious reasons, allowing technologically adept criminals a less dangerous way of conning victims out of their money. But what about those whose intentions aren’t to obtain money, and who lie seemingly for the sake of it? Research done by theconversation.com found that 41 per cent of the self-identifying catfishers they spoke to named loneliness as a motivation for their online deception. Some described how they found it easier to interact with others behind the guise of somebody else; some used catfishing as a way to experiment with their sexuality, using the disguise of a different gender to allow them to explore their own feelings. Though this seems innocent enough, the real people on the other end of this deception can suffer severe emotional distress.

Living in an ever advancing technological world presents its own set of problems which would’ve been impossible to imagine twenty years ago. An increasing awareness of the dangers of social media means that more websites are putting methods in place to ensure the safety and security of those that use it. But the truth of the matter is something that we should all remember in this social media age: you can never know who you are really speaking to online.

Image by Kevin Simmons via Mayberry Health and Home

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