Catfishing is a term for the practice of fabricating a false identity in order to interact with people on the internet. From bots that spew poetic nonsense about penis enlargements through to people pretending to be Nigerian princes needing only a small amount of charity for the promise of great returns, there are all kinds of catfish on the internet. Parents – certainly in the 90s when the internet was still young – are often frightened of catfish, as the common stereotype of the catfish is the predator of children.
My mother was one such parent, and she expressly forbade me from going into chatrooms as she was concerned I would be putting myself in danger. Irritated by the assumption I wouldn’t be able to tell when an adult was pretending to be a young girl, I used to rebel. I would go onto websites and catfish myself.
On the chat forums I frequented, the interactions were businesslike. People would ask me my age, my clothing size, my bra size, and details about my genitalia. I would lie, of course. After some time, they would be satisfied and suggest we meet up to have sex. At this point I would reject them. Apoplectic rage and any amount of slurs would follow and I would get my thrills watching them blow a fuse.
There are many reasons why a person might catfish. Being assigned male at birth and living in a small town, a friend mine used to go online in her teenage years and use that anonymity to explore her gender. Another friend was recently catfished by a curious little brother, using his older sibling’s account to ask her friends about how to use Pokémon Go. But until recently, it had never happened to me.
After finishing a string of performances for a festival, I was added on Facebook by a stranger named Yuko. As I often encourage people to seek me out on Facebook after a performance, Yuko’s complete lack of mutual friends didn’t particularly throw me.
The only post on her wall said she had moved to Melbourne from Toronto and that she was opening an account to get away from some cyber harassment she was getting at home. This seemed entirely believable, though there were a few aspects that were off.
She had the word ‘womyn’ in her bio. Many contemporary feminists identify the word ‘womyn’ as one with a history associated with a trans-exclusionary strand of feminism. In other words, when I see the word ‘womyn’, I assume that the person using it would likely have a bone to pick with a trans person like me. To be fair, though, not everyone has the same understanding of particular words, or makes the same political associations. I’ve been in that position before, and Yuko might have been the same.
I started talking to Yuko. Initially it was just to check to see if I knew her offline, but she was chatty and charming so we talked for a while. She asked for work of mine to read and complimented me on it. She told me about her family in Sydney. We talked about cats and how cold it was.
For the guys I would catfish in my youth, as well as those I see baiting prominent feminists online today, anger and entitlement always simmered just beneath the surface. Yuko’s creator, however, was incredibly patient. I asked her if she wanted to join one of the closed groups I run and she didn’t push the point relentlessly.
Being a survivor of abuse comes as a mixed blessing when encountering duplicity. Survivors are more susceptible to subsequent abuse because abusive people often deeply disrupt a person’s certainty in themselves and their interpretation of the world. As such, I am both able to spot people’s lies but also be predisposed to believe them over my own gut feelings.
I reverse-image-searched Yuko’s profile picture, and discovered it was a stock photo nabbed from an article about studying Korean. I looked at her Twitter profile and found it dated sporadically back to November 2015. The account had started following me so far back that my notifications didn’t cover it. For her to be catfishing would have meant a long-term project. That amount of investment was interesting to me. These things were enough to flag to me that something was off, but not enough for me to discount her entirely.
But then she started adding my friends en masse. Someone who has opened up a new account doesn’t randomly start adding a cohort of strangers; they add their old friends from home. She also told me she was using her real name. Most people running from cyber harassment don’t use their real names.
Along with building a long digital history, adding mutual friends is a common way to give an appearance of authenticity in a fake account. It makes confirmation of further friend requests more likely and builds strong appearance of being connected to a community. My friends and community, being largely queer and predisposed to suspicion, started asking around the moment a friend request came through from her. While by this time it seemed increasingly likely that ‘Yuko’ was catfishing, I still found what was happening compelling. Who was ‘Yuko’? Why was she catfishing us?
Driven and shaped by the strategic approaches encouraged in war games, men do meet in cyberspace to strategise the best ways to abuse, attack and try to destroy women. The forums that Men’s Rights Activists organise on are frequently watched by feminists, also catfishing, who keep tabs on those who intend to do harm. After I posted about ‘Yuko’, a friend got in touch to let me know that there didn’t seem to be evidence of a calculated attack.
My theory – and my editor is encouraging me to reiterate that it is just a theory – is that Yuko’s creator is not a fan of Clementine Ford. Twitter has a function where you can import lists of people that other people have blocked from interacting with them. If you are of a like mind to someone and you don’t want to be bothered by the people they dislike, you can block those same people. I am not important enough to have the need to block lots of people, and have only imported two Twitter block lists – Van Badham’s and Clementine Ford’s.
A lot of the people ‘Yuko’ had engaged with were blocked via these lists. ‘Yuko’s Twitter account had also retweeted Clementine’s tweet about her block list, among others. I started to suspect Yuko’s creator was a Men’s Rights Activist when I discovered that along with her Korean-language stock photo, there was a photo in her Facebook account that was a screengrab from a Men’s Rights Activist YouTube account.
I am a writer, first and foremost, so I enjoyed the story of ‘Yuko’ for the same reason I play computer games: someone has created a world and invited me to step into it. ‘Yuko’s creator, I think, took great pleasure in the process of creating a narrative as well – even if it was just the a thrill found in the power of deceiving and toying with someone. My fascination with this person is not unlike a biologist holding a jar up to the light that contains a rare specimen of fish.
When I told ‘Yuko’ that I thought she was a catfish, she didn’t give up the game, and start abusing me, or vanish entirely. She answered in character. When ‘Yuko’ messaged my friend’s flatmate to tell them that I had assaulted her sister, however, things got darker very quickly. I was losing interest and this person was upping the ante. ‘Yuko’, or the creator, wanted to wreak havoc and was using the conventions set up to protect survivors to do so. Thankfully, by this time, most people in my social circle had already figured out that ‘Yuko’ was not real.
At the beginning of the encounter, when I still believed there was a chance ‘Yuko’ was a legitimate person, I offered to meet up. There is no benefit to a catfisher revealing themselves, so I knew that either I would meet a genuine person, or the catfisher would fob me off or fail to show. I wasn’t concerned that I might fall into a trap to commit violence against me, as sometimes happens on platforms like Grindr, because I wasn’t intending to meet them anywhere except a busy public space. My community, upon this information being dispersed at a slower rate than my realisation this was not a real person, got in touch to warn me against meeting up with this person. Whilst warmed by the care that was expressed towards me, I once more felt that familiar irk that people considered me so naïve.
In the end, to satiate my curiosity and conclude the mystery, I employed the best, low-risk technique to figure out if the person you’re talking to is catfishing: I asked them to Skype.