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Has Catfishing Changed Our Nature of Trust on Facebook?

Identity is generally determined within ourselves, and by those around us. In its simplest root, identity can be defined as the manner in which someone is characterized or understood. However, it is important to remember that there is no singular or “true” version of the self, or one’s identity. In any environment, our characters tend to alter. As people, we learn to assume different attitudes and means of self-expressions depending on the situations we face. So, essentially, our identities in the virtual and the physical world may differ depending upon how we react to the specific circumstances we are presented it.

Although our virtual identities have a common link to the embodied self that creates them, there is no set rule that restricts us from being who we want to be online. For many people, online identity serves as a means to explore a new performance of one’s personal self.

Nevertheless, the virtual world does provide room for deception. This deception can occur either maliciously or by the desire to stray away from our front regions, that we are accustomed to presenting to others in the physical world.

There are many people in this world who create fake profiles on social media sites in order to deliberately deceive someone. This phenomenon, which has gained popularity in the past couple of years, is termed, “catfishing” and is most commonly seen in terms of romantic relationships. Catfishing involves the understanding of a particular social situation for both the catfish and the catfishee. Both parties need to have a specific interpretation of the social environment they are involved in, in order to either deceive or realize someone else’s deception. Thus, this blog post will examine how public knowledge about catfishing, specifically in the Facebook environment, has influenced the way in which we trust other people online.

First, in order to verify someone’s identity on Facebook, a user needs to be familiar with the different identity cues that are present on the social media site. Facebook users need to be aware of the social situation they are encountering. The cues presented on a general Facebook profile tend to be visual, including the name the person displays, the photos uploaded, how many friends he or she has, and what kind of information is shared.

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Take this man’s Facebook profile for example. Danny Sullivan has 1,701 friends, which makes him seem “too legit to quit.” Danny also has 157 photos and has been tagged in 317 different places tracked by his map. All of these indicators point towards verifying Danny Sullivan’s account. However, the most irrefutable information on his Facebook is the linked job at “Marketing Land”, which anyone could click on and see as a real company. Thus, his profile proves that identity on Facebook can be determined and authenticated by analyzing certain visual elements. In addition, interaction with others is crucial to take into consideration when comprehending the social situation of Facebook. If you go to someone’s profile and they have 30 likes on their status, together with personal comments from numerous Facebook friends, you can confirm in all probability that the person is who they say they are.

However, in certain situations it is important to reverse the process and think about “red-lighting” cues. There are a couple of identifiers that should definitely make someone wary about who they talk to on Facebook. One possible identifier is when the account has no profile picture. When you become friends with someone and they have no profile picture, you should start to question their true identity. An account without a profile picture, insinuates the person is trying to hide something. However, it is possible the person behind the profile is Katie Couric or Bryant Gumbel, both of whom do not know what the Internet is, but that is an entirely different discussion. Still, a few other red-light identifiers are the following: the account only has one photograph, an obviously fake name, no mutual friends, no listed social education/work experience, or no wall interaction with others.

Thus, the point of this information in relation to catfishing on Facebook is that both the catfish and the catfishee have a responsibility to be aware of the environment they are interacting in. Catfishing happens on Facebook when someone neglects to notice incorrect or missing social cues on a person’s account. In general, it is important for anyone on the Internet to realize that the performance of self in any social situation depends on the mutual understanding of what’s supposed to happen and what’s not supposed to happen. As discussed, there are certain social indicators, norms, and behaviors to abide by when setting up a Facebook profile. On Facebook, we essentially build up our virtual identify by deciding on which information we choose to display to others, with the assumption that others will do the same.

Essentially, Facebook “literacy” is learned and not given. This might explain why it is difficult for first time Facebook users to use the social media site correctly. Mostly everyone today, has encountered someone who inadvertently embarrasses himself or herself on Facebook by liking their own status or commenting on pictures uploaded by people they do not know. These first-timers are not abiding by the social norms associated with Facebook because they have not utilized the website long enough to interact efficiently. However, with time, they eventually understand the social environment they are networking in and can effectively become a part of the virtual community.

Thus, the worst part regarding people who catfish is that they are entirely aware of the social situation of Facebook, unlike first-time users, but deliberately use their knowledge to deceive others. In essence, the phenomenon of catfishing has influenced the way in which we trust other people on Facebook nowadays, making it imperative for people to stop communicating with accounts that are not linked to anyone they know in real life. These are essentially the rules of thumb to follow in order to avoid dishonesty and impersonation on Facebook: Do not accept random friend requests! Do not talk with people you do not know on random fan pages! Examine profiles for the red-light indicators before allowing the people behind these accounts to see your own profile. Overall, the most important rule is to just be careful of the virtual interactions that you have on social media.

Moreover, an important discovery that has occurred due to the popularity and awareness of catfishing is the fact that people are becoming more and more conscious of the dangers of deception on the Internet. Fortunately, for my research on the topic of Catfishing on Facebook and how it makes our society more careful to trust others online, I was able to interview several people on the topic. The questions I asked were as follows: “Has the public knowledge of catfishing influenced the way in which you trust other people on Facebook?”, “Are you more suspicious?”, What do you think about people who are catfished—do you think they are stupid, or completely naïve?” I received the following responses:

Jenna: “I think catfishing is wrong and I don’t think it should be promoted. However, I think the nature of the Internet allows people to catfish others easily. I definitely think I am more suspicious of unknown people on Facebook. Some people are desperate for attention from others and one of the ways to get that attention is from random people on Facebook. Also, a lot of young people, accept random friend requests in order to increase their friend count, so that is a way for catfishers to weave their way into people’s lives.”

Timothy: “I would say the public knowledge has changed nothing for me because I was never trusting of people in the first place. I’ve always been suspicious of someone I have not met in person. I think people who have been catfished are just stupid. Obviously I think it is best to just not trust people you don’t know for sure. Isn’t it a little strange for people to look for relationships on Facebook anyways?”

Evan: “On Facebook, I only accept people I know. I don’t think it’s necessary to accept people I don’t know. Of course I’m more suspicious, but I’ve always been. However, I don’t think that people are particularly stupid. I think they believe what they want to believe, but they should know better. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Meghan: “I believe that people, including myself, are more weary of giving out personal information to unknown others on Facebook and the Internet. This is especially true after shows like Catfish have shown the detrimental consequences on people who placed too much confidence in another person’s seemingly innocuous, but actually duplicitous, intentions. I have sympathy for people who are catfished but at the same time, I think they should have been more cautious of the dangers that were lurking.”

Thus, the prime theme that I discovered from all of my interviews was that although most people have always been wary about the dangers of the Internet and Facebook, the popularity of catfishing has indeed exacerbated those feelings. I truly agreed with Evan’s answer that sometimes people might be aware that something is “off”, but they choose not to believe it. I think this viewpoint is a perfect explanation for the complexity of Catfishing on Facebook, especially in terms of romantic relationships. Catfishees are often ignorant to what is happening to them, because the deceiving catfish has blinded them with romantic feelings. Ultimately, I also believe that catfishing begins when people are desperately lonely or unhappy with themselves or their environment. I do not think that they anticipate how quickly they become attached and addicted to the attention provided by the catfish.

Moreover, as most of all my interviewees stated, those who are catfished should have known better. The Internet is already a very unsafe place and sharing too much on Facebook with those that you do not know personally, is even more hazardous. In general, most people have enough knowledge about the Internet nowadays to distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior in terms of recognizing someone’s identity. The large audience that the show Catfish on MTV has attracted over the past couple of years, proves that people are not ill-advised about the dangers of the Internet, especially social media sites like Facebook. Therefore, I agree with Olivia that catfishing should not be promoted, or dealt with lightly, especially since it can lead to dangerous situations such as rape, identity theft, or burglary. For example, relating back to Catfish on MTV, the show is ultimately both beneficial and detrimental to the growing recognition of catfishing. On one hand, it may exacerbate the amount of people getting involved in catfishing situations due to an underlying desire to be famous. However, on the other hand, this show does succeed in opening people’s eyes to the real and true dangers that can be endured as a result of being careless on social media. Thus, it seems as though for the most part, the recognition of catfishing has caused most people to be especially weary of those they interact with on Facebook. My advice to anyone who uses Facebook would be to just be smart with social sharing, identity red flags and interact with people already in your social environment.

Here is the trailer for MTV’s Catfish, if you are not familiar with the show and would like to learn more.

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