Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Catfishing and how to avoid it

I’m on the wrong side of 70. This means there are a lot of things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand.

For one thing, I don’t know what catfishing is. At least, I didn’t until I looked it up online this morning. It turns out that catfishing is what happens when a person assumes someone else’s identity online and uses it to deceive people. It appears to be one of those terms that have crossed over from [anti]social media to mainstream platforms.

NZME – the company that publishes the New Zealand Herald and provides news to a chain of provincial titles – assumes that I, and all its other readers, know what catfishing is, since it used the term in a news story this morning without explaining the meaning. NZME even used it as the key word in the headline: “Teacher’s catfishing ruse”.

Of course there comes a point when every neologism is absorbed into popular usage and no longer needs any explanation, but I don’t think that time has arrived in this case. “Catfishing” is in the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, but that says nothing about the word’s uptake. Prestidigitation and toponymy are in the dictionaries too, but you don’t hear the words in everyday conversation. If I’m derided as a dinosaur because I’m not familiar with catfishing, I’ll wear it.

My guess is that the reporter who wrote the story is of a generation that’s familiar with Twitter-era jargon and didn’t think any clarification was necessary. This is a safe assumption because there seem to be very few working reporters left over the age of 40. Any trained journalist older than that is likely to be working as a strategic communications adviser in a government department.

Something else I don’t understand, notwithstanding that last fact, is why there’s no longer anyone in the newsroom whose job it is to throw badly written, incomplete or factually erroneous stories back at reporters and demand they fix them.

There used to be such people; they were called sub-editors, or “subs”. But subs were pensioned off years ago in the belief that reporters could check their own stories. How that was supposed to work was never clear, because how can anyone be expected to correct a mistake if they don’t realise they’ve made it in the first place?

In any case, there could be no place in 21st century newsrooms for cantankerous, old-school subs like the one at the Dominion who once bellowed, in a voice loud enough to be heard in Petone, that he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my f***ing arse if I hadn’t learned how to spell “accommodation” by the following day.

If a sub tried that today he or she (there were some pretty tough women on subs’ desks) would be fired for bullying and I’d be on leave with post-traumatic stress disorder (I was 18 at the time). But I’ll tell you what: I never again spelled accommodation with only one “m”.

In the case of the catfishing story, it could also have been pointed out to the reporter that AFL stands for Australian Football League, not Australian Federal League. Many of NZME’s readers would know this and spot the error immediately.

Does it matter? Well, yes, because readers seeing that the reporter got this tiny thing wrong are entitled to wonder what else he might have stuffed up. Credibility is everything.

In fact there’s a bigger problem here, because the news media must now come to terms with the awkward reality that “consumers of content” (to use a vile, dehumanising media term for readers, viewers and listeners) are often far more knowledgeable than most journalists, and snort with derision at the obvious errors and solecisms that confront them every day.

But all this is by way of a preamble to my main topic. The NZME story reported that a female teacher had “catfished” two women colleagues by pretending to be a man, striking up relationships with them on dating platforms and persuading them to send her naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves. She used the photograph of an Aussie Rules football star – hence the reference to the AFL.

The big question here (the one I sat down to write about before being diverted by catfishing) is this: why do so many people get themselves into these humiliating and totally avoidable situations? It seems self-evident that sending compromising pictures of yourself to someone you’ve never met, and can’t be sure even exists, is freighted with risk. 

The answer can only be that it fulfils a need in people who are either narcissistic, exhibitionist or desperately in need of approval – possibly even a combination of all three. Sadly, [anti] social media provides fertile ground for predatory men seeking to exploit the vulnerable.

I started out by saying there are things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand. This is one of them. The astonishing thing is that people continue to share intimate photos despite knowing the downsides (after all, countless cases have been reported), and then seem surprised as well as traumatised by the outcome.

This morning we also read about a woman, identified only as “Hazel”, who allowed her former partner to film them having sex together. After the relationship had broken up, the spiteful ex-partner placed the sex video on a global porn website.

It’s hard to imagine a more despicable or vindictive act – but in this case it has potentially far-reaching public consequences, because a District Court judge has overruled ACC’s decision to reject the woman’s claim for compensation. That could result in a flood of claims from others who have similarly had their trust betrayed. RNZ suggests they could run into the hundreds.

ACC made its decision on strictly legal grounds. It held that the harm the woman suffered wasn’t recognised under the relevant legislation.

The novel aspect of the claim is that Hazel’s lawyers argued in court – and the judge apparently accepted – that her consent to the video was voided when it was put online without her permission. It therefore became a case of sexual abuse.

It’s worth mentioning that she brought a civil case against her ex-partner and was awarded reparation, but it wasn’t paid – at least, not in full. It seems the public, through ACC, is now left carrying the can for her unwise choice of partner.

I can see this case provoking serious anger and resentment from the thousands of people who have struggled in vain, or had to jump through endless hoops, to get ACC cover for what they believed were legitimate claims arising from real physical injuries.

Such people would be justified in taking the view that what happened to Hazel, while deplorable, was not an accident in the customary sense. She agreed to the video and only later retracted her consent in the light of what was subsequently done with it. In other words, she had control – or to use a fashionable term, “agency” – over her actions. To put it another way, and to use a popular euphemism often used to excuse folly, she made a “bad choice”.

I hope ACC appeals the judge’s decision. Compensation for sexual abuse wasn’t on the radar of the scheme’s architects in the 1970s but now accounts for thousands of claims annually, and eligibility will be widened further if the decision stands.

In the meantime, the case should serve as an object lesson to all those women who think it’s a good idea to pander to the voyeurism of dodgy males. But that may be too much to hope for.

Useless information: Since posting this, I've learned that the term "catfish" comes from a reality TV series (so-called) of that name about online dating. The origin of the metaphor is explained on Wikipedia but hardly seems worth repeating here.


Gary Peters said...

You may or may not be aware that "proof" of the sexual assault is rather loose as well. In some instances it would appear that the "accusation" is enough in cases where the "accused" has been found not guilty but ACC has not sought repayment for the "abuse".

Trial by innuendo maybe?

Anonymous said...

Huh, I assumed the term was much older. Since the practice, in varying forms, predates the internet.

Anonymous said...

When certain persons highly placed in Stuff (and still even more highly placed) went round newsrooms in 2015 explaining ''improvements'' to everything , one line from one of them was that reporters were the people best placed to edit and check their own stories as they wrote them. This was said to a meeting of about 20 of us . She added that sub editors were putting in errors....I kid you not...Ok sometimes they can if they assume without checking but most of the time they saved reporters from issues later. - Paul Peters, New Plymouth

Doug Longmire said...

Like you, Karl, I have never understood the naivety of some people who respond to requests for this sort of thing from an on line source.
As I see it, if a complete stranger knocked on your door and said - "please give me a some nude porno style photos of you for me to take home." would you do it?

Of course not !! So why do it when the request is from a stranger on-line ?

The dangers of this on-line seduction were described in detail in Marc Goodman's excellent book - "Future Crime" Well worth a read !!

Dave M said...

Perhaps the ACC ‘abuse’ claim department works on the principle of ‘build it and they will come’ amended to ‘claim it and we will pay’. Although this would presumably only apply to women’s abuse claims.

EP said...

Completely agree Karl, that ACC not be available in cases of gullibility. This was not an accident. The woman who gave her 'information', had she had half a brain, would have known she had no ability to control what became of it. ACC has enough genuine cases of the difficulty in deciding on the term 'accident'.

Anna Mouse said...

On the point that reporters get things wrong.....about two months ago TV3 mature Newsreader Mike McRoberts called NATO, the "North American Treaty Organisation"....

I kid you not. I had to play it again to believe that, that was what he said....

Conclusively it is clear that the teleprompter typist is ignorant and that the Newsreaders do not use their own brains either.

Doug Longmire said...

NO !! ACC should not pay.
This woman gave her information away. There was no "accident" She gave consent.

Ben Thomas said...

Pardon my asking, but what is "freighted with Rick"? Is this a term I have never come across or would it cause a sub-editor to turn in his her grave?

Karl du Fresne said...

I don't know who Rick is but would rather leave him out of it.

Ben Thomas said...

It should of course have been 'risk' as it appears in the article, which just demonstrates the folly of predictive text and the need for sub-editors.

Steve said...

Karl, I too believe we should leave Rick out of the discussion.

But can I help Ben Thomas along by suggesting your term “Freighted with risk” is your polite way of referring to someone who is a complete & utter dickhead for doing something so bloody stupid…….

Ian Baugh said...

Karl, back in the early 80s I wrote a report about boatbuilding in Vanuatu for the NZ government and the only things I remember about it are that Vanuatu was a nice place to be and that I didn’t know how to spell “accommodate”. My friend in Honiara who commissioned the report was a pedant and so am I.

I once wrote a complimentary email to a woman who was featured in the NYT for giving free lessons in writing style and grammar to migrants in the New York subway, and in order to do so tracked down her professional website. I was struck by how much she appreciated my email, and by the fact that she saw the joke when I pointed out that her “About our buisness” page included one of my favourite typos.

Very happy if you feel the need to sub-edit this.

Eamon Sloan said...

I must disagree with you Karl on the stance you taken on the issue of the woman’s ACC claim. You are correct to say she had agency, control etc. over her original actions and maybe ought not to have consented to a video recording. Things changed considerably however when the “spiteful” (your word), ex-partner published the offending video without her consent.

The legal argument then was that as she had no control over the ex-partner’s actions those actions were an attack on her personally. It produced the same effect as say hidden cameras have on people’s mental well-being. How many hidden camera legal cases have been brought in recent times? I believe the judge is on solid ground here.

Put it another way. The publishing of the video without her consent was in effect the accident.

I take you point about ACC dodging all manner of valid accident claims. Could that ever become an election issue?

Richard Arlidge said...

I agree with you Karl, this shouldn't be an ACC issue and, as mentioned, the culprit posting the video has clearly been identified and that surely is where the pursuit and recovery for any harm done should be focussed - but then they did mess with the ACC law on sexual issues some years back.

On the other - 'catfishing', as like you, it's not a term I have previously come across and it seems to me to fit in the same category as 'gaslighting' where the word, at face value, has no real relationship to what it purportedly means. Another which I have little time for is the increasing use these days of 'uptick' when they simply mean 'increase' - as it otherwise suggests to me there should sometimes be a 'downtick', which, equally, is something of an absurdity, as a 'tick' in itself is usually involves an up motion and suggests a positive.

Apropos the getting it right - I recently watched "Official Secrets" (based on a true event) on Netflix and there's a scene in that wherein what the press report is pivotal to its credibility - and that again was down to a simple 'spelling' (or spell-check/language error) - you'll have to see it to appreciate it. And if you saw TV1 (evening) News a couple of nights ago (Tuesday) when Simon Dallow was reporting on EV's and the numbers on the screen bore little relationship to what he was actually saying. But then, who trusts anything on msm these days?

Karl du Fresne said...

Ian Baugh,
Even if I wanted to sub your comment (which I didn't), the software doesn't allow me to. I can only publish or not publish.

Karl du Fresne said...

A sharp-eyed reader has pointed out that I omitted the word "tell" when I wrote (or at least meant to write) "I'll tell you what".
It's now fixed. I rest my case about the value of sub-editors.

Anonymous said...

Contributing to the discussion on mistakes in the media, I recall a TV documentary from about 1999 (?) on the 1981 Springbok tour. Various people were interviewed, and there was the usual voiceover narrator - it was before the days of presenters always fronting documentaries.

The narrator mentioned "Robert Muldoon made his priorities clear (or words to that effect) when, around or at the time of the tour, he went to the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana at WESTMINSTER ABBEY", and showed footage of him taken from inside St Paul's Cathedral entering, showing all the white of the building, rather than grey gothic of Westminster Abbey.

I recall thinking at least the narrator, and writer plus at least a few others should have known the mistake. I presumed the documentary makers simply associated the Royal Family with Westminster Abbey (two years after Diana's funeral), and didn't know better.

It was a standard documentary on either TVNZ or TV3.

Anonymous said...

Further to my comment above, about confusing Westminster Abbey with St Paul's Cathedral, I have found the documentary on Youtube. It actually dates from 2001.

The documentary is called, 1981: A Country at War

The clip and narration is at 29.50 onwards:

Hilary Taylor said...

I'm ex-ACC. For cover one needs to have suffered 'personal injury by accident'. Let's leave industrial & occupational cover aside. Most people understand the purpose and intent of the provide cover for all souls on NZ soil when they are injured or killed by accidental means, exposure to risk is irrelevant, it's a no-fault system. Compensation flows if cover is granted but earnings-related compo depends on one's status as an earner..let's leave that aside for now too. Presumably this woman expects lumps sum cover for permanent disablity, not loss of earnings, OR financial loss cover due to forking out for counselling, as many sex abuse claims do OR both. Let's look at if she has cover at all. Sex abuse cover relies on a physical harm flowing from the'accident' that the abuse is deemed to be...psychological harm often, rather than physical. In her case the accident is purported to be the dissemination of filmed materials she helped this an accident within the scope of the act? Not in my book and not in ACC's either apparently. If she doesn't have cover that's the end of the matter. Her claim relies on this dissemination of materials being construed as an accident giving rise to an injury to her....a very long draw of the bow. Even if we accept she has cover what is the injury? A clinician has to provide evidence of the nature of the injury by way of medical certificate...I'm not clear what she claims the nature of the injury is...mortification isn't covered so is this 'abuse'? Let's see.