Exploring attitudes to ‘catfish’ impersonating and feigning illness online.

Authors: Taylor, J., Pulman, A. and Tickle, O.

Conference: International Conference on Social Media and Society

Dates: 18-20 July 2018


Background: Besides the many positive benefits of social media, there has been a rise in a number of negative behaviours such as identity deception and lying online. Tsikerdekis and Zeadally (2014) suggest two motivations of identity deception: exploration of the self, and deceiving others using personas deliberately crafted to be unrepresentative. Identity deception for the use of self-expression and exploration purposes is viewed as benign (Shpigelman & Gill, 2014), however, identity deception that originates with stolen photos and information alongside false relationships is viewed more negatively due to undesirable and malicious outcomes. One type of identity deception is Catfishing, the act of luring others into online relationships using false identities (Lovelock, 2017). Another related occurrence is Munchausen’s by Internet (MBI) by which those affected deliberately fake psychological trauma or illness. Objective: The aim of this study was to explore student attitudes to catfishing and impersonating and feigning illness, which the researchers had previously investigated. Specifically, we wanted to explore incidences and attitudes toward online behaviour which involved deception and views regarding legislation.

Methods: An 19-item online survey was advertised to first and second year psychology students, with 198 responses (response rate 36%). Results: 32.5% of participants had lied to a family member online and 52.5% had lied to a friend online, however only 14.07% had moved on to creating a fake profile online.

33.5% of participants were aware of MBI behaviours via either news sources (25%) or personal experience (family (1%) friends (1%) and colleagues 5%), however higher numbers (48%) of participants were aware of catfishing behaviours and these were via either news sources (30%), personal experience (family 1.5% /friends 7.5% /colleagues 1.5%).

When asked how they would feel if someone on their social media admitted to lying about cancer online, the most often used feelings were ‘disgusted’ (n=61) and ‘angry’ (n=57). When asked how they would feel if a close friend/family member social media lied about cancer, the most often used feelings were 'angry' (n=51) and 'disappointed' (n=32).

Participants felt the duty of care regarding legislation rested more with the social media providers (37%) than at a country level (6%) with slightly more requiring both to take more action (15.5%) and few feeling the onus was on the individual to realise this was a risk of using these tools (4.5%). Respondents tended to view positively that misuse of health-related forums and catfishing should be categorised as cybercrimes, with only a small percentage thinking there should different levels of categorisation dependent on the severity of the incident (9.5%) and a minor number viewing it as a risk of using the Internet (3%). Future Work: The number of personal experiences of MBI and catfishing highlight more instances of this than would have been expected in such a small pool of participants which means that the problem might be greater than at first thought. Further qualitative analysis will be conducted regarding the contexts surrounding these instances, which participants provided within other items of the survey.

As more cases are reported and global awareness grows (Lawlor & Kirakowski, 2017), it seems that over time opinions are hardening in young people regarding how these incidents should be treated. This might be seen in relation to other cultural phenomena such as the #metoo campaign to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, where people have had enough and a tipping point has been reached. Further research is investigating the current wider cultural context regarding online deception.

Source: Manual