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Due to the popularity, or at least widespread discussion, of a recent docu/mockumentary, a new term has entered the Urban Dictionary:

catfish: A catfish is 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 "catfish" at the bottom of the film of that title appears to have been a relatively benign example of the species. Others have not been so harmless. Just ask Paula Bonhomme, who was strung along for over a year by a clever faker posing as an online loverboy. She claimed to have spent over $10,000 on gifts for "Jesse Jubilee James" and his "family", and to have been emotionally shattered to learn of "his" "death from liver cancer". It took her another six months or so to find out that she had been scammed by another middle-aged woman, Janna St. James, who used some twenty sockpuppets to prop up the illusion of "Jesse". Bonhomme then pursued the matter through the courts for five years, only to have the Illinois Supreme Court rule against her.

Maybe the Catfish trio were lucky, at that. If the charade had continued much longer, perhaps Nev would have been heartbroken to learn of his "darling Megan's" "death" in a "car crash" or from an "overdose" or from "cancer".

This form of sockpuppetry is very closely related to, and is probably an extension of, a phenomenon called Munchausen by Internet. Persons with this disorder make up stories of having, or being the caretaker of someone who has, a serious illness, and exploit the sympathies of other people through various social media, often in groups centered around the particular problem they are claiming, and usually with the support of an array of sockpuppets to "confirm" their claims. The "Kaycee Nicole" case was an early and infamous example of this. A much more recent one was that of "Mike Feigen", who claimed to be homeschooling three boys, two of them his own twin sons and the third a nephew, all with cystic fibrosis. He was very active on Facebook, a Yahoo group for secular homeschooling, and a support group for cystic fibrosis (and, supposedly, posted a few times on Daily Kos!). Then suddenly it was reported (on his Facebook page) that he and all three boys had been killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. Suspicions quickly arose when no information about any such accident could be found in any of the news media anywhere in North America - and all the Facebook pages for the "members" of the "family" promptly disappeared. Speculation as to just who "Mike Feigen" was and what his motives were is still ongoing.

A most interesting account of the Feigen story can be found here. What is particularly interesting about it is that the writer was herself at ground zero for one of the most bizarre and extensive cases of emotional manipulation in the history of fandom, and has survived to come out of it a stronger and better person. She explains it all, insofar as it can be explained, in a series of blog entries under the heading of "The Crazy Train". (It starts here:

One of the other victims jumped on her own Crazy Train as a result of being taken for a disputed amount of money, and became an object of fanwankery in her own right. She has very recently (like, within the last six months) shown some indications of regaining her emotional balance and a bit of perspective...after at least ten years.

Lest you think that saga is isn't. The catfish shifted names and fandoms, resurfacing as a "novice" writer of Harry Potter fanfic, developing a new coterie of fans/marks, and spinning out Teh Crazy once again. It didn't go so well this time, as he was exposed and put up a GBCW which was mercilessly mocked - and did not last. And then It Got Worse. This time it seems the catfish unwittingly(?) catalyzed a dangerously unstable situation into explosive violence, and was lucky to escape with a minor wound. The woman who had befriended him and invited him to mediate(!) was not nearly so lucky.

This particular catfish was last sighted lurking in the background of his own LiveJournal site and passing on segments of the third and final novel in his Potterfic series for other fans (or sockpuppets?) to post, when and as he completes them. There have been long intervals (and some melodrama) between installments, and there is no certainty at this point that he ever will finish it.

So take care when communicating with someone on the 'Net. You might just discover that you have been feeding a catfish.

Originally posted to TheOtherMaven on Fri Jul 13, 2012 at 08:14 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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