Is social media at least partly to blame for Te'o hoax, or were journalists just being lazy?

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o answers a question during Media Day for the BCS National Championship college football game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, in Miami. Notre Dame faces Alabama in Monday's championship game. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The questions are multiplying.

The website deadspin.com revealed this week that star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o had been carrying on a virtual relationship with a nonexistent girlfriend, who he claimed died of cancer at the same time he lost his grandmother.

Suddenly the Internet lit up with speculative postings, office conversations turned to the topic and the news media went into overdrive.

Te’o has claimed he was “the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies,” duped into starting and sustaining a relationship with someone called Lennay Kekua. Others have suggested that the story was made up to garner sympathy and enhance his standing in the eyes of fans and the National Football League, which is set to draft him.

And in what way did our media-saturated culture assist in perpetuating the deceit? Is social media a dangerous house of mirrors that distorts truth and deceives its gullible occupants, or is it a tool the deceitful can use to advance their stories and agendas?

“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious,” Te’o said Thursday. “If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.”

Imaginary friends
Inventing a fake girlfriend (or boyfriend or buddy) is a relatively common occurrence, said Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston.

“I would imagine what he’s done has been done hundreds of thousands of times, by anyone who wants to project an image of themselves they like better than the image others might have of them,” Bakanic said. “You can be whoever you want to be on social media.”

Technology has been harnessed for centuries to fool people, Bakanic noted. Scams come to us in the mail, by telephone and from door-to-door deceivers, not only across the Internet.

So lying and getting ripped off is nothing new, but the way we communicate via social media platforms certainly is, and a general lack of experience with complicated technologies can make it difficult to stay safe or to provide young people with necessary guidance and ground rules, she said.

“(Some of us) may not be savvy enough to avoid being duped by others who are presenting themselves in a fictitious way,” Bakanic said. And when victims and perpetrators have an audience, things can get complicated.

Media consumers love a heartwarming story, and because electronic media tends to bombard us with information at a quick pace, it’s common to pass it along to our friends, family and colleagues without checking its veracity, Bakanic said.

Rumors, she said, are sometimes true and often false. “It’s hard to separate the two.”

Fact check
But that’s exactly what professional journalists are supposed to do, said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

They are just as susceptible to false information as anyone else, Bierbauer said. But reporters have a responsibility to verify the assertions people make.

When a journalist gets information from a primary source, as in the Te’o case, is it ever OK to accept that information at face value?

“When you get the individual himself, the primary source, you’re less likely to check things out, especially if it’s run-of-the-mill stuff,” Bierbauer said. But in this case, the reporter who wrote the original feature story doesn’t seem to have asked some basic questions: “Is there a back story? Who is this girl? What is she like?”

Virtual world
Jennifer Wright, a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston with expertise in moral development, said fibbing about relationships (and more) happens all the time.

“We’re not all that tethered to reality anyway,” Wright said. Our brains are designed to switch between reality and fantasy. “That’s what imagination is. The very same mechanisms in our brain that help us track reality also help us decouple from reality.”

Now add our expectations to the mix.

“(Te’o is) part of a social structure that has a very clear picture of the kind of person you need to be to get the social rewards you’re looking for,” Wright said. Young football stars are supposed to have loving and pretty girlfriends. And if they have triumphed in the face of tragedy, all the better.

But Te’o probably doesn’t have a real girlfriend, she said.

“Perhaps he’s hiding the fact that this piece of his life is missing. In an increasingly robust virtual world, it becomes easier and easier to disseminate embellishments and falsehoods that strengthen one’s public persona, Wright said.

The sophisticated nature of the girlfriend character and her interaction with Te’o suggests it’s unlikely he was the “victim of a sick joke,” she said. But it’s plausible.

“Look at how much time and energy people spend to create computer viruses,” or otherwise inflict harm on others, she said. “Certainly it’s not beyond the ken to imagine someone wanting to dupe him.”

Some people perceive that the success of others can hinder their own success, and this can cause them to attempt sabotage, Wright said. Maybe Te’o’s duper was trying to take the wind out of his sails, to trip him up. Or maybe Te’o really was satisfied with a purely electronic relationship, she said. It’s not that difficult to imagine.

“It’s not so hard to create a fake narrative,” Wright said. “Living in a virtual world is becoming a much more common, accepted and comfortable thing. ... It exaggerates the possibility of creating fake realities. So our connection to reality becomes that much more tenuous, because we can be whoever we want to be. We can create an avatar.”

Repercussions?
Does the controversy disqualify him in any way as a football player? Whether he lied or fell victim to a hoax, Te’o remains an exceptional talent on the field. Is his gullibility, or his deceit, reason enough to deny him what is likely to be an exciting and fruitful career on the field?

“All he’s done is create a story,” assuming he was not merely a victim of a hoax, Bierbauer said. The media and its consumers are accomplices, he said.

“We like good stories. We love good bad stories.” We love creating ideals and admiring heroes. “That gives us a little bit of hope. We want our heroes to have all these wonderful dimensions, and nobody can live up to all of that. I think we’ve had hero worship for a long time, haven’t we? And it’s been difficult on the heroes. After all, we’re all just people.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.

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