Lots of people have been fooled online. Some have had entire relationships with people only to find out they weren't the people they thought they were...some not even the right gender. It is as disturbing as it is frustrating to imagine that anyone you speak with on the Internet might not be who they say they are. In fact, in certain situations -- chat rooms, for example -- it's probably best to just assume that the person chatting with you is the exact opposite of how they describe themselves, if for no other reason than to avoid potential embarrassment later. Anyone who has spent any time online understands this is a standard safety precaution.
So, when I read about the incredible details of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o and the girl he was supposedly in love who died last year and who turned out to be complete fiction, I was fascinated by how everyone was duped, but not terribly surprised.
Everyone, and I mean everyone fell for the hoax. The New York Times, the Associated Press, ESPN, CBS This Morning, newspapers and broadcast media outlets across the country all reported on Te'o's tragic and completely made up story. On Wednesday, Deadspin blew it up.
What this underscores is how technology makes it easy to fake out anyone. We like to joke about people who fall for Nigerian royalty e-mail scams and stuff that could be looked up on Snopes, but the truth is that cons are more easily perpetrated than we'd like to believe, particularly when technology is involved.
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Yes, news outlets are working so desperately hard to be the first to a story, they don't take the time to follow up leads that might keep them from being embarrassed. But when technology backs up a lie so convincingly, it isn't all that difficult to see how even seasoned journalists with highly tuned bullshit detectors could find themselves at the mercy of an elaborate Internet ruse, particularly when it involves tragedy so poignant, it is almost impossible to believe it isn't true because, who would lie about falling in love, horrible car accidents, leukemia, bone marrow transplants and death?
Twitter accounts, photos and text messages, all fabrications, were used to further this particular lie and it worked. Te'o has claimed to be the victim of a strange and complex hoax, but Deadspin would appear to have evidence to the contrary. And, if he did know, the fabricated story of love and loss that helped to catapult him into the national consciousness, along with his brilliant play, could go down as one of the great dupes in the brief history of the media's interplay with the Internet. If he didn't know, it might just be Te'o who is the dupe.
It's an extreme example of how easy it can be to fool someone if you have a little digital trickery on your side. Clearly the media and most of America didn't, but you can bet they'll be more careful when fact-checking stories the next time.
And if anyone still doubts the validity and journalistic weight of Internet news outlets, they need to keep in mind that the news outlet that did the real investigative reporting on this one and the only news outlet to figure out how the rest of the media got caught with their collective pants down was a blog.