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This is a picture of Nev Schulman, the executive producer and host of MTV TV show Catfish.
Nev Schulman is the executive producer and host of MTV's Catfish.

Catfishing is a deceptive activity where a person creates a sockpuppet presence or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim for abuse or fraud.[1] The practice may be used for financial gain, to compromise a victim in some way, or simply as forms of trolling or wish fulfillment. Catfishing media has been produced, often featuring victims who wish to identify their catfisher. Celebrities have been targeted, which has brought media attention to catfishing practices.


The modern term originated from the 2010 American documentary Catfish. The documentary follows Nev Schulman, the executive producer, as a victim of catfishing. He had cultivated a relationship with what he thought was a 19-year-old woman from the Midwestern United States. The woman with whom he had been communicating was actually a 40-year-old housewife. In the documentary, it is mentioned that the woman's husband came up with the term as he found comparison to a myth how cod and catfish act when shipped in different tanks. The myth describes how live cod fish were shipped with catfish in the same tanks to keep the cod active, ensuring the quality of the cod whereas being shipped alone the cod would become pale and lethargic.[2][3][4] This myth originated in the fiction writing of Henry Nevinson (1913, Essays in Rebellion) and Charles Marriott (1913, The Catfish).[5]

The term catfishing has become more widely known throughout the subsequent decade, thanks to a television series which followed the main star of the movie, Yaniv (Nev) Schulman, helping other people investigate their possible catfish situation.[6]

The term also spiked in popularity during an incident involving University of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o in 2013.[3][5]

Practice and sociology[edit]

Catfishing has been thought to have grown in popularity as it allows participants to disassociate from one's everyday identity, shielding from moral obligation or responsibility. This is attributed to the Online Disinhibition Effect where online users feel more comfortable sharing information, some of which may be untrue, on an online forum than through in person communication. [7]

An internet user uses a fake identity to persuade another to believe they are the person they portray. This often is used for relationships, such as the scenario in the movie Catfish. The person catfishing uses another real person's photos and life facts to make them appear as a real person. Often, the real person who is being used for the fake identity does not know that they are having their pictures and name used. They are not aware that their identity was used to create these fake relationships online. The person uses catfishing in order to appear as a better version of themselves by using a fake identity. Their primary reason to appear as a fake person is to befriend the other person for a relationship or other sexual reasons.[8]

Some online users have used catfishing to explore their gender and/or sexual identities.[9] Known this way as a type of romance scam, catfishing is often employed on dating websites however the use of social media or email will serve for scammers as a way to make initial contact. [10] For example, on the MTV show Catfish, based on the documentary, a girl named Sonny connects with a male model named Jamison who is, in reality, Chelsea, a woman using her alternative identity to interact romantically with other women in an online space.[9]

Financial gain can be another motive of catfishing. In 2015, three girls created a fake social media profile and managed to steal $3,300 from the Islamic State, a terrorist group. The three girls had been approached by a recruitment officer to join the organization. After coming into contact the three girls proceeded and asked for money to travel to Syria. After being given the money, the girls immediately deleted their account and pocketed the cash for their own personal travel.[citation needed]

Catfishing has also been used as a tactic to stop criminal activity. In 2004, Dateline NBC produced the segment, To Catch a Predator, which documented undercover cops posing as minors online to catch pedophiles. Pedophiles would then be lured into spaces arranged by the undercover officers where an encounter between the posed minor and the adult were to occur.

Catfishing can also be used as a tactic to cyberbully someone online by attacking other individuals online working under a fake or anonymous identity. Since they are using another person's identity or a made up identity, the person will not get in trouble and will not have any consequences as the cyberbullying cannot be traced back to them.


There have been incidents where catfishing has led to murders and kidnapping. It can be used to attract a person from the Internet and allow them to meet them in person. The person catfishing can lure a victim to a place to be kidnapped, or hurt in another way. Catfishing has also been a new way for sexual predators to interact with their victims and possibly harm them creating another threat. These sexual predators use fake identities to talk to teens, allowing them to get close to them so that the victim will trust them. This then allows for the predator to get information from the victim to use that information to potentially harm them.[11] An example of this was the 2007 murder of Carly Ryan

Catfishing as a way to harass others online also has increased the number of suicides in teens as mental abuse is involved.[12]


Although subjective, there are multiple warning signs attributed to catfishing behavior.

  • If an unknown person starts following or messaging a user and the person's profile picture looks fake or too good to be true.
  • If the person messaging does not want to video chat, or keeps finding excuses to not meet up.[13]
  • If profiles between dating and social media sites are inconsistent, for example having different names or pictures between websites. [10]
  • If after a few encounters the opposing party starts proclaiming love, especially after only a few days or weeks of contact. [10]


The identity of an Australian actor, Lincoln Lewis, was used by an impostor over four years. The actions resulted in the suicide of one victim, who had at one point reached out to the real Lincoln Lewis as they had attended primary school together, so she was familiar with some aspects of his life that were discovered and exploited by the perpetrator. The female perpetrator operated from at least mid-2011 until arrested in mid-2016, and in early 2019 was found guilty of stalking six people.[14][15]

According to a Washington Post article,[16] the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax story may have been an example of catfishing where a young woman posed online as another student after the young man she had a romantic interest in did not reciprocate. The young woman posed as a made-up upperclassmen student online in order to stay in communication with her love interest.[2] [17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chandler, Daniel. (March 2016). A dictionary of social media. Munday, Rod., Oxford University Press. (First ed.). Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-180309-3. OCLC 952388585.
  2. ^ a b McCarthy, Ellen. "What is catfishing? A brief (and sordid) history". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-11-11.
  3. ^ a b Harris, Aisha (January 18, 2013). "Catfish meaning and definition: term for online hoaxes has a surprisingly long history". Slate. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  4. ^ "Why is MTV's 'Catfish' TV show called Catfish?". November 26, 2012. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  5. ^ a b Zimmer, Ben (January 27, 2013). "Catfish: How Manti Te'o's imaginary romance got its name". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  6. ^ Martin, Denise. "Here's How MTV's Catfish Actually Works". Vulture. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  7. ^ "The Psychology of Cyberspace - Home Page/Table of Contents". Retrieved 2020-11-25.
  8. ^ Lohmann, Raychelle. "The Two-Sided Face of Teen Catfishing". Psychology Today. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  9. ^ a b Slade, Alison F.; Narro, Amber J. & Buchanan, Burton P. (2014). Reality Television: Oddities of Culture. Lexington Books. pp. 237–244. ISBN 978-0-7391-8564-3.
  10. ^ a b c Commission, Australian Competition and Consumer (2015-05-14). "Dating & romance". Retrieved 2020-11-11.
  11. ^ Lohmann, Raychelle. "The Two-Sided Face of Teen Catfishing". Psychology Today. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  12. ^ Patchin, Justin W. (2013-02-07). "Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying". Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  13. ^ McHugh, Molly (2013-08-23). "It's catfishing season! How to tell lovers from liars online, and more". Digital Trends. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  14. ^ Lincoln Lewis warns of social media dangers after online impersonator convicted of stalking, ABC News Online, 2019-04-09
  15. ^ Catching a catfish: A terrifying story of virtual deceit and inexplicable malice, perpetrated by the last person anyone expected., James Oaten, ABC News Online, 2019-04-09
  16. ^ Shapiro, T. Rees (December 10, 2014). "U-Va. students challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  17. ^ Shapiro, Jeffrey Scott (December 15, 2014). "U.Va. rape accuser's friends begin to doubt story". The Washington Times. Retrieved 2015-09-23.