The Tinder Swindler and Sweet Bobby discuss the dark side of catfishing

Claire Young

Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler and Tortoise Media’s Sweet Bobby podcast have both brought the internet phenomenon of ‘catfishing’ into public discussion within recent weeks.

“Catfishing can have quite serious consequences and people can be emotionally and financially damaged by it,” Dr Tanya Horeck, Associate Professor in Film, Media and Culture at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge said.

The Tinder Swindler follows the stories of several women trying to recover millions in stolen cash by prolific dating app scam artist and catfish, Shimon Hayut.

Sweet Bobby is a six part podcast which chronicles Kirat Assi, a successful radio presenter’s online relationship with the character of ‘Bobby,’ who after years of lies and toxicity turns out to be, spoiler alert – a catfish.

The term ‘catfish’ originates from the 2010 documentary of the same name in which protagonist Nev finds himself developing an online relationship with nineteen-year-old Megan, who claimed to be an artist and dancer.

The person Nev was actually talking to was revealed to be Angela Wesselman, a married woman taking care of her two stepchildren, using a fake online profile of a model.

Wesselman created online personas for at least 21 fake relatives and friends in order to make the account more legitimate and also posed as an eight-year-old artist named Abby, who Nev also interacted with.

The Catfish documentary spawned a popular MTV television series, Catfish: The TV Show which has lasted eight seasons and most recently two seasons of a UK version of the show, which recently called on Irish contestants to apply.

Currently there are no direct laws surrounding catfishing in Ireland or the UK and Horeck believes that the issue would be “very difficult to police”.

“It might be better handled through social media platforms discouraging fake identities, although account verification processes can also be quite fraught,” she said.

In order to prevent catfishing from happening in the future, including the subject in digital literacy education programmes during school could be a possible solution.

“It would be helpful to speak early on to young people about the perils of catfishing and to discuss the ethical issues around it,” she said.

As observed in the Tinder Swindler, the reason behind catfishing can be for monetary gain, although Catfish: The TV Show often presents viewers with perpetrators who “feel that they do not live up to white heteropatriarchal normative ideals of thinness and beauty,” Horeck said.

Nix, 18, shared their catfishing experience with a friend they had met online, “they told me a completely different age, location, name, birthday…and we talked for almost two years before I found out,” they said.

Catfish: The TV Show is divided between two personas, the “hopeful” and the “catfish,” according to Max Joseph, prior host of Catfish.

“The ‘hopefuls’ are shown to have emotionally invested a great deal in the online relationship and we are invited to sympathise with them when they learn of the betrayal. At times, though, the show also invites us to have empathy for the catfish who have complicated reasons for creating fake identities,” Horeck said.

Since being added to the dictionary in 2014, the term ‘catfishing’ has evolved to have different meanings within the online sphere, including how some young women worry that their online persona may not match up with their real world appearance.

“In this use of the term, there is not any deliberate duplicity but, rather, anxiety about the disjunction between digital and real life appearances,” Horeck added.

The Tinder Swindler is available to stream on Netflix and you can listen to the Sweet Bobby podcast on most streaming platforms.

Claire Young

Image credit: Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash