Tonawanda News

January 24, 2013

KEPPELER: For Te'o, the crime is naivety

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — With most of the rest of the world, when the news of the Manti Te’o dead-girlfriend hoax first emerged, I read in horrified disbelief ... and then rolled my eyes.

Really? He wants us to believe he had nothing to do with it? Seriously, dude, you’re 21 years old. You’re a star college football player, not locked up in a cellar somewhere. You never once met this woman (although you said at one point that you did), but you were in love with her?

Either you’re a liar, someone reprehensible who would make a personal reputation over a fictitious tale of tragedy, or you’re just plain dumb.

And no one could be that dumb. 

Not in 2013.

But in the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about the story. Mostly about how the media is in part to blame for swallowing it hook, line and sinker (not a single reporter ever thought to Google Lennay Keuka’s supposed obituary), but about Te’o, and what this whole debacle means.

His name is forever linked with either a nasty hoax that insults anyone who’s ever truly lost a loved one to cancer, or with the utter stupidity of falling for such a tale. 

Or is it just mindblowing naivety? And how could anyone, in an Internet era, be that naive?

Well, it happens all the time. Just not to that degree.

You see them on Facebook, and so do I. People who repost things that tell gleefully of how such-and-such a company will send you an iPad if so many people repost this, or send you emails about how so-and-so celebrity made a comment critical or supportive of an issue they support or abhor. (Ninety-nine percent of them seem to be untrue.) Or maybe it’s a sweet story about a pet or a child that really never existed. (But darn, does it make a good story.)

Or maybe it’s worse. Maybe it’s dreck from those who believe that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax, or the president is a Muslim or that Bill O’Reilly was arrested for assaulting a department store Santa. Some of it’s wish-fulfillment, some just an innocent attempt to pass on news, but it’s all utterly without a basis in reality. Much like Lennay Kekua.

But there’s a difference, you say, between reposting something silly on Facebook and believing that a woman who doesn’t exist was in love with you. But how likely is it, really, that Bill Gates is going to send you cash for forwarding an email message? And you believed that.

Falling for the story of someone who doesn’t exist isn’t as rare as you might think.

Visit any online forum, whether it’s a place to talk about a hobby, or a television show, or politics. Almost anywhere, long-timers will tell you about a poster who claimed a rare and devastating illness, or spun fascinating, sometimes outlandish stories before being exposed as a hoax. 

Maybe they started off fairly normal and built up to the point where disbelief started to creep in. Maybe they gave themselves away before they started to ask for money. But almost everyone’s encountered them. And to some extent, almost everyone’s fallen for them. (At least until the money point, and sometimes even past.)

It’s human nature, I think. No one wants to believe that someone is spinning you a yarn, especially when they seem like such a nice person. I mean, why would anyone do such a thing?

Why, indeed.

Now, the Te’o story takes this to extremes. But I wonder. Just how much is a person capable of believing in exactly what they want to believe? And at what point do you realize things are out of control?

There’s no real way to prove that Te’o knew that the woman he called “the love of my life” was a fake, that he made up the entire thing. But I think that until he confesses, I’m going to try to accept that he didn’t. No laws were broken. No one was hurt. There was no crime.

Except, perhaps, for the unforgivable, tragic crime of naivety.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com.