Manti Te’o Gets Catfished

The Manti Te’o hoax, in which Notre Dame fans, media entities, and allegedly the Heisman runner-up himself, were fooled by a false Twitter account, is drawing more attention to the legality of false online identities and online impersonation.
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Photo by Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy

The Twitter account claimed to be Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s girlfriend, who the media reported passed away in September on the same day Te’o lost his grandmother. The inspirational story made headlines three days later when Te’o mentioned the deaths in a post-game interview and pointed at the sky. On January 16th, 2013, the sports news site Deadspin was the first to break the story that Lennay Kekua never existed. The hoax has not only created a buzz in the realms of social media and college football, but raised intriguing legal questions as well. Did Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged originator of the hoax, break a law by creating a fake girlfriend for Te’o? Does Te’o have any legal recourse for these events that, if nothing else, made him look gullible and fraudulent in the public eye?  

What is Catfishing and is it a Crime?

Creating a false identity online, sometimes called “catfishing,” is not generally prosecutable as a criminal offense. Several states, such as California, Washington and Arizona, have enacted online impersonation laws. However, these laws often require the false representation to involve an “actual person” and be for the purposes harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person. Social media attorney Bradley Shear points out that catfishing crimes are hard to prosecute, because, “some of these laws may infringe on the First Amendment and may eventually be declared unconstitutional.”  

Victim May Be Able to File Civil Lawsuit

While criminal prosecution seems unlikely, the victim of a catfishing crime may be able to seek legal recourse by filing a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator(s) of the crime. Depending on the circumstances, the victim may be able to bring tort claims, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, misrepresentation, or negligence. To succeed on his/her claims, the victim would need to prove that the perpetrator(s) acts were intentional and that he/she suffered some physical, emotional, or monetary damage. Recovery for mere embarrassment is unlikely unless it is directly associated with significant emotional distress or a monetary loss.  

What now for Manti Te’o?

It will be interesting to see whether a civil lawsuit is filed against the perpetrator of the hoax on Manti Te’o, particularly if it effects Te’o’s stock in the April, 2013 NFL draft. While a player’s individual draft stock is highly speculative, if Manti Te’o is drafted significantly later than he was projected before this story broke, he may claim that the hoax, and ensuing media backlash, cost him significant earnings from his rookie contract. A large grey area still exists in the laws regarding catfishing, creating a false online persona to interact with others. However, in recent years, cases such as the Manti Te’o hoax are bringing the issue to light, and may prompt lawmakers to recognize the need for regulation.