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Catfish is a slang term used to describe someone who assumes false accounts on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter for the sake of developing online relationships with strangers or pretending to be in a relationship.
The term catfish originated from the 2010 documentary film of the same name. Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Catfish follows the story of Schulman’s brother, Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, as he develops an online relationship with Megan Pierce, a girl he meets through her younger sister Abby. As the documentary progresses, it is revealed that Megan Nev is a fake identity based on a woman in rehabilitation and assumed by Megan’s mother, Angela.
The documentary was partially met by skepticism regarding the authenticity of the film, believing that the circumstances are too well put together to have taken place in real life. However, no one involved in the production has confirmed the notion.
The title of the documentary was inspired by a trade practice among Norwegian fishermen who added a single catfish into the tank of live sardines or cod in order to keep their stock physically active and fresh while in transportation. The lore is also told in the film by Vince, who compares Angela to the role of catfish that keeps others active in life. Furthermore, a method known as the Catfish Effect has been applied in human resources to motivate a team by optimizing the distribution of competition among colleagues.
On July 22nd, 2010, “catfish,” as it is used in this context, was first added to Urban Dictionary, defined as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” The usage of the term likely faded away after a few months, but grew in popularity slightly two years later with the premiere of an MTV series based on the premise of the film in November 2012.
In January 2013, the slang term saw a notable resurgence in popularity due to the highly publicized scandal surrounding Notre Dame Football Player Manti Te’o and his “catfish” girlfriend. On January 19th, Funny or Die released a parody trailer of the documentary film featuring an actor impersonating Te’o.
In January 2013, the slang term saw a notable resurgence in popularity due to the highly publicized scandal surrounding University of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o and his “catfish” girlfriend. It all began in October 2012, when Te’o appeared in a YouTube video to speak about the recent losses of his grandmother and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, both of whom had passed away from illnesses only six hours apart on September 21st. Then, months later, on January 16th, 2013, Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey of Deadspin published an investigative report surrounding Kekua’s identity after discovering there was no official record of her existence. They also found that the photographs used to identify Kekua in the media belonged to a 22-year-old Californian woman who did not know Te’o.
Kate Brianna Fulton
In July 2013, U.S. federal agents and Bulgarian police began searching for an American teenager named Kate Brianna Fulton after someone claiming to be her boyfriend called the U.S. Embassy in Moldova to report that she had been kidnapped in Bulgaria for a ransom of $50,000, which was further backed by a call for help allegedly sent from Fulton’s Twitter account a few days before her disappearance. However, after engaging in an extensive regional search for the woman without any results, the investigators soon determined that Fulton was a fictitious entity created by New Jersey teenager Andriy Mykhaylivskyy, and that the student whose photographs were misappropriated as pictures of the missing girl was safe and in the United States. Once taken into custody, Mykhaylivskyy confessed that he had been posing as Kate Fulton in order to play a joke on one of his classmates.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino
On January 24th, 2014, The Buffalo News reported that Cheektowaga, New York resident Brandon Ashraf had made fake profiles on Facebook and dating websites for deceased Army Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino, who was killed in 2009 by a roadside explosive in Afghanistan. Ashraf was charged with misdemeanor criminal impersonation after Pucino’s sister Melissa discovered the fake profiles and notified the police.
Tre “Topdog” Ellis
On June 10th, 2014, Alabama.com reported that 19-year-old Marissa Williams was being held in a jail in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for asking a fictional Facebook friend to shoot and kill several members of her family. Court documents revealed that Williams’ aunt had posed as a man named Tre “Topdog” Ellis on Facebook to spy on her niece’s social media activities. After Williams began chatting with the fake account, she asked Ellis to pay for her cellphone bill in exchange for sex. Days later, Williams revealed that she did not wish to live with her family anymore and asked Ellis to murder her aunt, cousin, aunt’s fiancé and the family dog before fleeing with her. Williams’ aunt subsequently contacted the police, who came to the house and arrested Williams on charges of solicitation of murder.
The term “catfish” gains a large number of searches due to the fish of the same name. However, the term has had increases in search interest that parallel the release of the film and the broadcast of the television show/use of the term.