Manti Te’o not the first: A short history of social media hoaxes

January 17, 2013

The news that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was an Internet invention has floored millions of people -- including, allegedly, Te’o himself. For months, the Notre Dame football star called Lennay Kekua his girlfriend and the love of his life before telling numerous media outlets she died of leukemia.

Then Wednesday, Deadspin dropped a bomb: There’s no evidence Kekua ever existed, at all; her numerous (and convincing) social media accounts were created and run by someone else.

Hoaxes like this one, called “catfishes” after Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary, are always some mixture of sad and shocking. But invented bloggers and tweeters are also not terribly unheard of, even if they rarely strike people as high-profile as Te’o. Consider this short history of social media scams:

Kaycee Nicole Swenson (2001): Thousands of people followed “Living Colours,” the blog of 19-year-old leukemia patient Kaycee Nicole Swenson, until she died on May 15, 2001. A few days later, a Kansas housewife admitted to faking the blog for almost two years.

Megan Faccio (2007): Angela Wesselman-Pierce, a middle-aged Michigan housewife, seduced New York-based photographer Nev Schulman under the Facebook alias “Megan.” Schulman’s trip to Michigan to find the truth became the acclaimed documentary “Catfish” and inspired an MTV reality show of the same name.

Jesse James (2007): A heroic Colorado firefighter inspired a popular blog by his besotted Internet lover -- and a very lengthy LA Weekly profile when she discovered he was fake.

Masal Bugduv (2009): Prank blog posts and Wikipedia pages convinced several news outlets, including The Times of London, that 16-year-old Moldovian Masal Bugduv was one of the world’s best young soccer players. Bugduv does not exist.

Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari (2011): The Syrian-American writer behind the much-quoted blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” turned out to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old master’s student from Georgia.

Wendi Deng Murdoch (2011): More than 10,000 followers believed the Twitter account @wendi_deng belonged to the real Wendi Deng Murdoch. Even Twitter fell for the hoax, verifying the fake account before realizing it was made by an anonymous prankster.

J.S. Dirr (2012): For 11 years, a 22-year-old Ohio woman maintained an intricate blog and social media presence for a fake Canadian family called the Dirrs. J.S. Dirr and his 11 children faced a variety of heart-wrenching, attention-grabbing obstacles -- like his five-year-old son’s cancer, and his wife Dana’s eventual death.

Kara Alongi (2012): A New Jersey teenager sparked 6,000 phone calls, tens of thousands of tweets and a significant local manhunt when she tweeted that an attacker was in her house -- then disappeared. While Alongi is real, her tweet was not. Police now say she left the house voluntarily.

Lennay Kekua (2012): Depending on whom you believe, Notre Dame’s star linebacker either invented his cancer-stricken girlfriend for publicity or fell victim to a well-orchestrated scam.

In either case, it’s “incredibly embarrassing to talk about,” Te’o said in a statement on Wednesday. No kidding.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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