When news broke mid-week—after an in-depth investigation by online sports website Deadspin.com—that Manti Te’o was allegedly the target of a cruel online hoax involving a fictitious girlfriend, the media pounced and has been abuzz ever since.  What has become clear since the Deadspin investigation and public statements from Manti Te’o and the University of Notre Dame, is that Te’o, a star linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner up, was likely the victim of a prank that went too far.

While Manti Te’o may be severely embarassed by the extent of this prank and his subsequent public day of reckoning, this practical joke gone wrong will be unlikely to lead to criminal prosecution of those involved.  In that sense, this online hoax was relatively minor, regardless of its public nature.  The most important factor in assessing possible criminal liability is whether anyone associated with this prank intended to profit from the plot by soliciting anything of value from Te’o or anyone else.  At this point, according to Te’o's statements to ESPN, the only items of value received as a result of this hoax were two dozen white roses from Te’o and “a little gift” from his parents in the days following Lennay Kekua’s purported death.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Notre Dame’s own private investigation found no evidence that the perpetrators of this prank were after cash.  While criminal liability would be unlikely, the architects of this elaborate hoax may be subject to possible civil liability if Te’o or anyone else involved suffered any financial loss or infliction of emotiation distress as a result of the prank.

Aside from the obvious embarassment of being the victim of such a prank, this story has received enhanced media attention due to the nature of its target , an otherwise standout football player at one of the nation’s top universities.  However, it should not be surprising that such pranks are commonplace, especially in today’s world of Twitter and Facebook, where people can connect virtually without every having met one another.  Facebook is well aware of the problem of fake profiles and has vowed to cut down on such accounts, noting that 8.7 percent of all Facebook accounts are fake.  It is likely that Twitter and other social networking sites may be similarly susceptible to fake accounts.  There are stories of Facebook accounts being created to solicit donations for the care of a purportedly sick child, only later to discover that the entire scheme was a hoax created to defraud credulous people of their money.  There are a number of organizations that are determined to debunk these scams and keep their perpetrators from defrauding the public using social networking sites.

In the end, it is clear that there is a big difference between a young man creating a fake Twitter account and carrying on a fake online relationship with a famous college football player—allegedly as a fun prank—and using social networking sites to defraud the public.  Therefore, even though this hoax has thoroughly embarrassed Manti Te’o, there will likely be no major ramifications for anyone involved.  Te’o, however, may see some possible negative effects on his NFL draft prospects as teams try to determine if he was complicit or simply painfully naïve.

Andrew Solinger

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One Response to Te’o KO’d by Alleged Online Hoax

  1. Joanna Collins says:

    Pranking seems to have taken a particularly mean-spirited turn lately, and it is regrettable that there is no obvious criminal action in cases such as Manti Te’o’s. It makes me wonder whether, in cases of “catfishing,” there could be a potential cause of action for cyberbullying under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In the recent case of US v. Lori Drew, a mother suspected that a 13 year old neighbor was spreading rumors about her daughter. She then created a Myspace profile for a fake teenage boy, and used it to send cruel messages to the young girl. After this hoax ended in tragedy, Drew was indicted by a Grand Jury on charges of computer fraud. While the federal district court ultimately set aside the jury’s guilty verdict, this was the first time a federal computer crimes statute was used to prosecute this type of wrongdoing on a social networking site. I am interested to see whether prosecutors pursue this type of action in future cases.