What we can learn from online hoax

It might be sort of an odd story, the one of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s supposed dead girlfriend hoax, but in an era of “catfishing” online and a 24-hour news cycle that is too concerned with publication instead of facts, it’s not that surprising to students and student journalists.

In 2012, the Heisman runner-up fashioned a relationship through Twitter with Lennay Kekua, who said she was a Stanford student. The story took off in the media as an All-American love story that pushed Te’o into perfect games and the spotlight.

But in September, Te’o’s life took a turn for the worse in a span of six hours, when his grandmother died and then Kekua after complications with her leukemia. Te’o continued to play and tweet Kekua in the following weeks, saying “@LennayKay I miss you!” and “@LennayKay you will always be with me wherever I go!”

Twitter was a big part of the relationship, because of the distance, so the couple communicated through phone calls and social media but had met before, or at least that’s what he told the media and his father.

Last week Deadspin, a sports news website, broke the story that Te’o’s girlfriend, who had supposedly died in September, did not die, and apparently did not even exist. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Te’o also admitted that the two had never met; he had lied to his father, and therefore had also lied to media outlets.

The photos of Kekua also came out as fake, as the real woman in the photos came forward, stating clearly she was not Lennay Kekua and had also never met Te’o.

Keep in mind that the only news outlet that decided to check the facts on the story from the beginning was Deadspin, and that was three months later after receiving an anonymous email tip.

So what does this tell us? Well, as young students, it seems obvious: be more cautious online, don’t continue a relationship with someone who won’t meet you in person and really, Twitter is not a place to begin a relationship in the first place.

And as journalists, it seems even more obvious: fact check, fact check and fact check again before publishing stories.

Both situations could have been prevented pretty easily, but since they weren’t, this is a big story that we can all learn from.

Students should be more careful when online, be weary of a new Facebook friend who’s chatting you if you don’t know them. Take the MTV show, “Catfish: the TV Show” as an example. In nearly every episode, the person on the other end of the computer is not who he or she claims to be.

It’s a compulsive liar, an ex-girlfriend getting revenge or just someone with self-esteem issues. In every case, the people continue an Internet relationship without meeting in person, sometimes never even talking on the phone.

So learn from them and Te’o.

Similarly, journalists should have been checking to see if Kekua was real from the beginning. They were almost played just as bad as Te’o was. From the beginning, news sources should have been checking facts, even though a death may seem like something silly or insensitive to check.

There was too much word of mouth and trust reported in national news media outlets. There are inconsistencies in times of death and meeting times, and even if they actually met, which they did not.

Without fact checking, journalists break trust with readers and the public.

The Internet provided journalists with the same facts and same articles, so many assumed that if multiple other articles said the same thing, then it must be true. This is not how journalists should be reporting.

Use the Internet to your advantage, to research and check background facts, even if you think others have already done it. As a journalist, especially a student one, we should be questioning every fact and making the effort to correct it, even if it takes a little extra time.