Hopefully you didn’t miss the crazy story of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o this week. Even though the football player’s grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other, he went on to lead Notre Dame to a stunning victory just 3 days later…and then it turned out his girlfriend never existed. (His grandmother did, though, but apparently one death wasn’t dramatic enough).
The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a total fabrication. A guy who knew Te’o–or some speculate Te’o himself–created her using some unknowing girl’s photos and a few twitter accounts, and the press bolstered the story with articles. Notre Dame officials knew it was a hoax back in December but didn’t say anything, raising questions of whether they supported the tragic story for the Heisman votes it would get Te’o. Deadspin.com unraveled the whole thing yesterday, leaving a lot of unanswered questions.
But no matter what actually happened, there are a few privacy lessons we can learn from this ridiculous story:
1. Our digital selves are almost as important as our physical selves.
We really are the sum of our online and offline parts, so much so that the media can believe a person is real with nothing but digital evidence. Our social networking profiles, the photos we post, our tweets…they’re not just part of who we are; they can make us. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of your online footprint, like the Google results for your name and the public content you’re putting up online, because it’s a strong reflection of who you are. Unless you want it hurting your chances of getting a job or a date, you need to control it.
2. It’s easy to pretend to be who you’re not…
The phrase “fake it til you make it” takes on a whole new dimension on the Internet: you really can pretend to be someone you’re not. Identity thieves did it more than 9 million times in the US alone last year. It also happens with resume-bluffing, where applicants lie on their resumes about attending colleges they never went to or having degrees they never earned and back up their fraud with online “evidence.” You can even fake your own popularity by buying Twitter followers, like Newt Gingrich did during the 2012 elections.
3. …or play up who you are.
Just like you can pretend to be someone you aren’t online, you can also use the web to your advantage and sell your good qualities. Use public social media posts and accounts, websites, and article comments as a means of branding yourself, using positive online content to control search results for your name (or bury negative ones).
Certain sites consistently appear high in the search results, and by simply creating a profile on them with your name and a bit of identifying information, you can manipulate searches for you. Make sure that you set your privacy settings to be publicly viewed, and only post content that you’re absolutely sure you won’t regret later. Use sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, About.Me, Pinterest, Blogger, Tumblr, and Quora.
4. Reporters don’t always get it right.
We rely on the press for fact-checking and journalistic ethics, but sometimes they publish a story before they really know it inside and out. Notre Dame’s local newspaper, The South Bend Tribune, seems most at fault here, publishing extremely detailed stories about a girl we now know wasn’t real. A few tweets and photos seemed to be enough to convince journalists that the girlfriend was real, and the juicy story of Te’o overcoming grief to triumph on the field was just too good to pass up.
This isn’t the first time journalists have jumped–wrongly–on social network content: many misidentified the Sandy Hook school gunman as Ryan Lanza, the actual shooter’s brother, linking to his Facebook page in articles, and journalists have reported on Syria through tweets that later turned out to be from fake accounts.
5. People might use your photos for crazy things.
An anonymous woman who’d never met Manti Te’o was shocked to learn that her photos had formed the face of his nonexistent girlfriend. Someone took them from her private Facebook and Instagram accounts, except for one: a picture that an old acquaintance from high school had asked for, where he made the odd and specific request that she hold up a sign reading “MSMK” to put in a slideshow to support an injured family member in his recovery. (“MSMK” was part of the fake girlfriend’s Twitter name.)
People’s online photos have been ripped off and used for all sorts of uncomfortable things, from ads to porn. In February of 2012, 17 high school students were horrified to find their faces on a porn site that had simply taken them from Facebook. You’re especially vulnerable if your albums aren’t private: people or aggregator software can come in, steal them, and use them elsewhere.
6. Reverse image search is a powerful thing.
One of the things that unraveled the Manti Te’o hoax was the reporters at Deadspin’s exhaustive reverse image searching. When they suspected Te’o’s girlfriend may not be real, they ran a series of reverse image searches on the alleged pictures of her to find matches. Reverse image searches work by comparing a photo that you upload to all the public photos in a database. Google has one of the largest. Whoever was behind the hoax made subtle changes to the pictures to try to throw off reverse image searches, but in the end, they led to the anonymous woman whose photos were stolen.
You can try a reverse image search now: just go to Google’s image search, click the camera icon in the search bar, and upload or paste the URL of the photo you’d like to search. Google will give its best guess of the identity of the person in the photo.
7. The significant other you met online might not exist.
Online dating gets a bad rap from movies like Catfish, where the person someone falls in love with turns out to be someone completely different…or in this case, non-existent. Plenty of people find legitimate relationships online, but there’s also the risk that your significant other is a lot different than you realize. Meet up in person at a public, safe place, like a restaurant or a coffee shop, and tell at least one friend or family member where you’re going. Or if it’s long distance, get on video chat to make sure your love interest is a real person.
Online can be a good starting point for dating, but you ultimately need to take it to real life. That’s one tough lesson Manti Te’o needs to learn…unless he was behind the whole thing.