Debate Forum, 1/29

Fake people causing real problems

 By Alex Culpepper

Famed Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o claims to be a victim of catfishing: a prank or hoax in which a person uses a false identity in order to mislead someone into an online relationship. His story goes something like this: Beginning in 2009, he began an online relationship with a woman he believed to be Lennay Kekua. The two engaged in sporadic communication via Facebook, but by 2010, they were communicating exclusively by telephone. The relationship continued, and then in June 2012, Kekua told him that she had leukemia. In September 2012, Te’o received a call telling him that Kekua had died – on the same day that his grandmother had died. The story made national news because of Te’o’s prominence as a well-known football player, and it made him a sympathetic hero for many people. Then on Dec. 6, everything unraveled for Te’o when Kekua called him and revealed that she was very much alive. For most of December, Te’o contemplated the deceit, seeking advice from friends and family. Finally on Jan. 16, 2013, the story of the Manti Te’o hoax was released, and it ignited a firestorm in the U.S. media.

As it turns out, Lennay Kekua is allegedly the creation of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the supposed mastermind of the hoax. At least he is according to Diane O’Meara, the woman in the photograph that Tuiasosopo used to represent Kekua. O’Meara claims to have had no part in the hoax. Further, Tuiasosopo might have even provided the voice for Kekua, though his female cousin Tino Tuiasosopo has been named as well. No one seems to know for sure yet.

Although it may be a while before the public learns all the details and all the players in the Manti Te’o hoax, the phenomenon of online relationship deception may possibly be as prevalent today as the Nigerian lottery email scam of yesteryear. However, unlike how the Nigerian lottery scam would potentially wipe out a victim’s checking account, catfish fraud appears to exist as a kind of recreation for the perpetrator because it yields the victim’s suffering of intense embarrassment instead of money. It’s very possible that little is known about the catfish phenomenon simply because victims are likely too embarrassed to report it.

In the case of Manti Te’o, he allegedly believed that the person on the other end of the computer screen – and eventually the telephone – was indeed who she claimed to be, and he allowed his “relationship” to go public.  Debate still lingers, though, about what Te’o knew and when he knew it. Some people have suggested various levels of Te’o’s involvement in or knowledge of the hoax, especially since the coverage of Kekua’s death seemed to advance his football career. In the end, it might be some time before we eventually know Te’o’s role, the Tuiasosopos’ roles or even O’Meara’s role in this hoax.

In this edition of the Dayton City Paper, our cover story discusses love in the current era of virtual dependency and how strong a role the Internet now plays in our society. Even as recently as ten years ago few would have dared admit they met online when asked “How did you meet?” Nowadays meeting online is as “normal” as meeting in a bar (Christian Mingle anyone?).  Also in this edition, former judge A.J. Wagner will discuss an existing law that makes “intentional infliction of emotional distress” a crime (which is very difficult to prove).

Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should we protect people by criminalizing the intent to hoax an individual via the Internet or telephone? And if evidence proves that Te’o is telling the truth, should the perpetrator in the Manti Te’o hoax be held accountable for “intentional infliction of emotional distress”?

Debate Left: Our lady

By Ben Tomkins
Noooohohohohoooo. We do not want to go down the road of criminalizing Internet and phone hoaxing. To be clear, let’s not confuse this with a “scam” where they bilk you out of your cash. That’s already illegal, despite the fact that televangelists have been doing that for years. Even then, nobody got their grandkids’ college funds back when Ted Haggard turned out to be bisexual, because your personal embarrassment that your leader is a hypocrite doesn’t justify state intervention. Besides, if it’s religion you should have expected it.

Whereas I usually take a broad brush to legal musings, Manti Te’o’s sexual/religious issues are in and of themselves compelling. First of all, there is the insurmountable problem of clear-cut, non-hearsay-based verdicts, and secondly, I’m pretty sure Manti Te’o is the Lance Armstrong of socially and religiously aborted homosexual exploration. Our culture, particularly the parts that take religion way too seriously, treats homosexuality as a duality. It’s either on or off, depending on whether or not you’ve “done something gay enough.”

In reality though, there is no gay or straight. It’s one giant spectrum of hetero/homosexuality. Whether they admit it or not, most straight men are like me: I know an attractive man when I see one and I can appreciate the beauty of his form. I don’t want to sleep with him, but I’m also not going to pretend it’s not a fact because of some frenetic, psychological witch-hunting paranoia that the insular aspects of Mormon/fundamentalist culture have injected into my otherwise perfectly normal psyche.

But the shades of increasing homosexual tendencies force men to walk such a thin cultural tightrope in a lot of communities – like, say, the Mormon church – that even the most benign curiosity brands them as a faggot. It’s precisely this that results in an overblown, terrified defensiveness of one’s manhood and the willingness to do or say absolutely anything to avoid being stigmatized as gay.

Best example? Ted Haggard. The man cheats on his wife, does drugs, ruins his church and betrays his parishioners, and what’s the most damning charge which he is first and foremost compelled to address?

“I’m not gay.”

Kill, rob, and torture your fellow man, but the second you start kissing him your neck is on the block.

So cut to Manti Te’o. The poor kid just can’t be gay and keep his life. And I’m not calling him Richard Simmons because I’m employed to write something provocative for a newspaper. His story is so ridiculously chameleonic that it simply is not to be believed.  He met “Lennay Kekua” at the University of Southern California as a sophomore, then he didn’t, it was only online, then it was thousands of hours on the phone, her webcam didn’t work, he thought Ronaiah Tuiososopo’s voice was a girl’s despite what I hear on his crappy Christian Youtube music videos, then the voice was Ronaiah’s sister Tino …

Look, I’m cutting this off, and after the Lance Armstrong business I think it’s pretty clear. Either this is the most elaborate and bizarre story we’ve ever heard …

Or he’s into men and everything makes perfect sense.

Now back to the hoax law. Consider the potential legal tidal wave from men who are experimenting, get found out and are desperate to get a United States Department of Justice plaque that says they are officially straight. In our culture, the story of the lying tranny will always stick. Say you call a guy you met at a bar, jerk off over the phone and feel guilty the next day, you could have him arrested simply by telling the right story. Seriously, who are the cops going to believe in Alabama? How can the court sort out a hoax and “I thought he knew”?

But worst of all – and I think this ultimately kills it – it would make it virtually illegal to be transgender. Essentially you wouldn’t be able to even talk to someone without a signed waiver, and even then the tiniest little bobble could get you thrown in jail. It just doesn’t work.

 Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at BenTompkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Debate Right: The Internet is full of scoundrels who need a kick in the ass

By Dave Landon

There is a new name for a hoax which is as old as Edmond Rostand’s story of Cyrano de Bergerac and his duplicitous courtship of the beautiful Roxanne. In the age of the Internet, this phenomenon is called “catfishing.” Cyrano won Roxanne’s heart by sending her letters while pretending to be the handsome Christian. Today, it’s practiced by people without scruples who create a fake online persona and then use it to lure a victim into an Internet romance.

Recently, Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o, the runner-up for last year’s Heisman Trophy, was the victim of a very public hoax. Te’o spent over two years communicating with a woman with whom he had a romantic, online relationship, and with whom in his own mind he had fallen in love. It was discovered in a very public way that she never existed. The star football player had been held up as an example of personal courage by remaining on the field competing for his team despite the reported early autumn deaths of both his beloved grandmother and his online girlfriend, supposedly dying within 24 hours of each other.

While the death of his grandmother was real, it turns out his online girlfriend, the lovely Lennay Kekua, never existed. Te’o had been the victim of a cruel hoax. And while some observers are critical of Te’o for being too trusting, this is a growing problem that may well need legislation fashioned to punish those who would use the Internet to inflict such emotional distress on another person.

Filing criminal charges would be difficult if the hoax were merely a game and the online persona was purely fictional, according to some legal experts. It would be difficult to prosecute a practical joke where no money was extorted as part of the scheme. To do so would run into First Amendment issues. While twelve states make it a crime to impersonate someone online, that would not apply to the creation of a purely fictional persona. In the case with Manti Te’o, there is not presently a law in Indiana (where he played for Notre Dame) or California (where it is thought that the perpetrator of the hoax resided) that would bring criminal charges to bear. It appears that at present only the state of Missouri has a cyber bullying law that might allow charges in a Te’o-type situation.

As this seems to be a growing problem, some legislative initative might help to take the sport out of the hoax. While the Te’o situation deals with an affair of the heart, there are countless examples where the Internet has been used by individuals to perpetuate a hoax.  If you Google “Internet cancer hoax,” you will find 605,000 hits. Many cases describe where the individual creates a false persona who is ill with cancer or some other horrible disease and receives an outpouring of sympathy for their imaginary illness.  While some of the cases are set up to collect money for the imaginary suffering patient, many instances do not. If a money scam is involved, these cases are clearly prosecutable under the laws of all 50 states.

There are cases where no attempt is made to raise money for the treatment of the illness reported. There is a new medical term for these instances. Münchausen by Internet is a disorder that scientists and doctors are beginning to take seriously. People with this syndrome pretend an illness for either themselves or an imaginary loved one in a bid for sympathy and attention. A contributing factor is the anonymity of the Internet, which makes acting on these impulses of seeking sympathy even easier.

While these examples of “catfishing” are difficult to prosecute, that does not mean that there is no legal remedy. A civil lawsuit is always a possibility where damages can be demonstrated as a result of the hoax.

Very few of us have managed to escape the attempts on the Internet of scoundrels attempting to involve us in their fraudulent financial schemes. I receive a regular email from a “Deputy Minister” of the Interior of Nigeria asking me to help him transfer millions of dollars out of his country.  For my assistance he promises to reward me handsomely. I need only to wire money to him to start the paperwork.  I can’t begin to tell you how many of my friends have sent me an email from London claiming to have been mugged while on vacation and relieved of all of their money. I am asked to wire money by Western Union to help them get back to the U.S. And heaven help you if you advertise on Craigslist that you have a condo to rent. While listing a family member’s condo I received emails from two different professors from overseas who claimed they would be moving to my area to teach and both offered to send a money order for the entire 12 months rent for the condo. They only asked that I wire them part of the money back so that they could buy furniture or some such nonsense. It never ends.

These financial predators need to be prosecuted.  The problem is catching them. The run their games from outside the U.S.A and there’s little chance that they can be caught, let alone prosecuted.

As for those lonely hearts like Te’o, I would strongly suggest an actual meeting before fully committing one’s heart to an Internet love.

 David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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