If you’re a Catholic who is active on social media, then you might have read an article about the trending Twitter hashtag #ThisCatholicGirl and the catfishing scandal that took place. If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, I’m going to fill you in.
To summarize, thousands of millennial Catholics who are part of an online community known as “Catholic Twitter” were tricked into believing the person behind an anonymous Twitter account @ThisCatholicGrl was a 23-year-old Pre-Law student named Elspeth Howard. This deceptiveness in the virtual world, pretending to be someone you are not, is known as catfishing. Catfishing is awful, yet surprisingly common.
Chase Padusniak was one of the biggest victims of this recent “catfish,” as he believed he was in an exclusive online relationship with Elspeth. However, a series of events lead him to discover and later reveal to all that “Elspeth Howard” is a fake online persona fabricated by a married 30-year-old woman. This woman–who we’ll refer to as “not-Elspeth” for this article–was the real person behind @ThisCatholicGrl, as well as all of “Elspeth’s” other social media profiles. She deceived Chase and thousands of others that she interacted with online. Many were convinced that she was a devout Catholic young adult and the revelation of who she really is has rocked their world.
Though we don’t encourage you to regularly watch Dr. Phil, this segment features Kurt Knutsson who offers several insightful tips to avoid being catfished.
So what’s the big deal about this situation? Speaking as a member of the Twitter community since 2013, I find that this catfishing is significant because it has greatly affected the lives and relationships of individuals in a tightly-knit Catholic community. Confusion has set in and trust has been violated. Is anyone who they say they are? There is a considerable amount of hurt from what many considered a “friend”. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for the members to be virtuous and to learn how to prevent something like this from happening again.
My Experience: Finding Love in “Catholic Twitter.”
My name is Tristan, and I’m not concerned about remaining anonymous anymore.
I created my Twitter account @Cathlete4Christ in the summer of 2013 while in Oklahoma for a college football scouting camp. I was reluctant at first to get a Twitter account for personal use, but I eventually caved and created a personal account so that college football coaches could see my personality. Not many of my friends had a Twitter account, so I followed some Steubenville Conference speakers such as Mark Hart and Jason Evert to fill my feed with good content.
Through retweets and replies, I found a few anonymous or “anon” Twitter accounts. I learned that these accounts were dedicated to tweeting only about a certain subject such as politics or fashion. However, the anon accounts that I discovered were all about Catholicism, and would eventually comprise the majority of what is now known as “Catholic Twitter.”
The mystery and nobility of using a social media account solely to glorify God and limit one’s personal presence inspired me.
I started following accounts ran by Catholic teens such as @CatholicClassy and @bropostle among others. Each account is different in style and substance, but they all form a community that a devout teenage Catholic could only dream of having as a group of friends in real life.
However, I couldn’t find a Catholic anon that was relatable specifically to my lifestyle which primarily consists of football and athletic training. A few anons played soccer or some other sport and would mention it in their tweets every now and again, but no account was heavily focused on both Catholicism AND athletics.
I had toyed with the idea of creating an anonymous Catholic Twitter account before. However, I feared that because I was a student-athlete, I would not have enough time to make the account as good as I wanted it to be. Then one day I considered all of the other Catholic teens who might have a desire to follow and benefit from an account similar to what I was looking for. In the midst of discerning the possibility, a question came to mind: If I won’t, then who will?
The redeeming reason behind my desire to participate in athletics was ultimately to give glory to God. It became clear to me that having an anonymous Catholic Twitter account focused on faith and athletics was an effective way for my teenage self to accomplish my goal at that point in my life. So I created @Cathlete4Christ, a Twitter account where I tweet about my life as a Catholic student-athlete.
I started out totally anonymous with a “pic-slip” here and there. I began interacting with Rachel-Claire, a girl I recognized from a Catholic YouTube Channel she ran with her sister called yourfaceisCatholic. They were one of the first members of the now-popular YouTube community New Catholic Generation. Shortly after we started messaging and video chatting regularly, she convinced me to join New Catholic Generation by creating my own Catholic YouTube channel and film videos about faith and athletics. After meeting in person a few times and dating long distance, we are now living in the same town, happily discerning marriage.
A Catholic Response to the Drama
The typical reaction to something as strange as this happening is often treated as the latest scandal about a world-famous celebrity having a divorce or intimate pictures being leaked online. People are quick to ride the wave of attention by making memes or jokes about it all. We have to remember that these situations involve real people with real lives, no matter if they are at the top of the Billboard charts or the top of the “suggested follow” list. The “Catholic Twitter Catfish” brings all of this into perspective.
Consider Chase, a Catholic writer/blogger who became interested in a woman he thought he knew online, only to discover the relationship he was in for the past year of his life was with someone who didn’t exist.
Then consider the “catfisher,” not-Elspeth. She has been exposed, and though Chase explained that she appears unapologetic on her legitimate personal social media accounts, it can be assumed that she is embarrassed at the very least. The fact that she entered into a seemingly exclusive relationship while being married to another man means that this impacts her husband. As a Catholic man who desires to have a faithful marriage, I can only imagine the heart-wrenching pain that not-Elspeth’s husband might be enduring.
Real people. Real lives. Someone’s year-long relationship was a lie. An exclusive institution that requires trust and sacrifice for the good of the other has been damaged by betrayal. Thousands of people who thought they knew “Elspeth” as a friend have been hurt by her deception.
The appropriate response that should be expected of all Catholics is charity through our comments, prayer for all of the lives involved, and affirmation to those affected.
It seems that this should go without saying, but we could all use a gentle reminder. To some people, our community of “Catholic Twitter” might be the only representation of the Catholic Church that they see. If we tear down the perpetrator for being deceitful and diss the victim for being gullible, then we are no more a supporting community than TMZ.
Who would want to be a part of a community that gossips and puts others down because their mistakes are public? Think twice before commenting on the situation and be supportive of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Pro-Tips” for Meeting/Dating Online
One thing we can take away from this hurtful situation is to be aware that there are people out there who are not who they seem. Even in the Catholic world! You must take every precaution to protect your heart, mind, soul, and physical well-being when you are dealing with virtual relationships. Here are a few tips from someone who has been there.
We live in a fast-paced world in which everything is happening right now. A relationship, especially an online relationship, needs time to develop. Do not give out highly personal information right away. Your real name, home address, birthday and where you are located should not be revealed to someone you have only met online. Use a few of these other strategies before divulging this information.
2. Video Chat
Since communicating through phone calls and Snapchat can still leave room for deceit (as we learned from Chase’s experience), the next step in verifying someone’s identity is video chat. Asking an online friend to video chat over Skype or Google+ is a safe way to verify their physical identity. Don’t worry about sounding paranoid, as there are polite and subtle ways to request this next step in an online friendship. For example, Rachel-Claire asked to pray a Rosary over Skype, which eventually became a weekly occurrence.
3. Snail Mail
As revealed in Chase’s article, he was able to find the real identity of not-Elspeth by searching the residents of the address which he used to mail her a book. I’m not suggesting you acquire someone’s home address so that you know exactly where they live. Rather, exchanging letters through the mail will expand your form of communication and teach you more about a person. Are they willing to take the time to write out a thoughtful letter without expecting an instant response? Of course, please don’t give out your home address to anyone, as online predators can use this information to stalk you. A safer way to go about this step is to use a PO Box for your online pen-pals.
4. Maintain Your Emotional Boundaries
There’s more to being chaste than being pure in your actions. It’s easy to start daydreaming about the rest of your life with a cute new guy/girl that you’ve just “met.” The thought of meeting the perfect suitor online has been romanticized and is becoming the ideal reality for communities such as Catholic Twitter. A majority of the “anons” come off as the perfect future husband/wife, mostly due to the imagination of the followers.
Be aware of how much time you spend online with a person you have never met. Sharing personal stories, goals, dreams, and aspirations is good, but be guarded about sharing too much. You should not be relying on this person to fulfill all your needs for friendships and advice.
The beauty behind meeting someone is learning about who they really are as a person, not as they appear in their tweets and pic-slips. Let your relationship develop into what God desires it to be in His timing.
5. Be the Real You
Obviously, I mean, otherwise, you’d be the one who is catfishing, right? Not exactly. By having an online identity (anonymous or not), you are free to appear however you’d like.
In real life, you don’t get to edit something you just said to a group of people. You don’t get to put a filter over your outfit. Social media can easily be an escape for us to create our own “edited life.” If someone really wanted to, they could only post the pictures that make them look good and the post updates that make their life seem like an adventure that never has a dull moment.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with only posting the highlights of your life, but when it comes to building any relationship with someone online, you want to be real. We all have flaws, and trying to portray yourself as perfect will end up hurting everyone. You don’t have to reveal all the trials and triumphs consisting of your life story the first time you DM someone, but don’t hide struggles that make you relatable and make you real.
6. Get the Support of Friends
As your relationship progresses, there is nothing wrong with enlisting your friends to help you. Ask friends in both real life and your virtual world to connect with the person you are talking to. Have your friends send the person friend requests and follow them on social media. Take the advice of real life friends that might spot red flags or warning signs that the person you are talking to isn’t all that they are claiming to be.
7. Meet Up (Safely)!
After chatting for a few months online, Rachel-Claire and I wanted to meet in person. I was looking into a college near where she lived, so why not meet up while I take a campus visit? My parents and I flew to Southern Arizona, took a look around campus, and then met Rachel-Claire and her family at her house for dinner. If you decide to meet up with a friend you’ve met online, only do so in a public place with friends/family. This way you’ll be with other people you trust who can keep you safe. Malls, coffee shops, and restaurants are great places to connect in real life.
8. Pray for Guidance
Always remain objective when considering your future with someone you’ve met online. Although it may appear that your relationship could work out on paper, it might not be God’s will. While visiting someone you’ve met online is exciting, perhaps it is only within God’s plans for the two of you to remain friends. Perhaps His will is to date long distance so you can work on yourselves before growing towards each other. Truly and honestly discern if God is calling you to make a big move to pursue this relationship.
9. Be confident
Don’t be afraid to take these precautions and suggest them to the person you are talking with online. Anyone who really is concerned about your safety and well-being will not be offended by any of these ideas. He or she will understand that these are necessary steps to growing in your relationship with one another and with Christ. Stand up for yourself to avoid being catfished, scammed, or taken advantage of.
Getting into the online world of like-minded Catholics is very exciting for devout Catholic teens who might have a hard time relating to most of their peers in public school. I get it, that was me. I wanted to know these Catholic Twitter personalities like I grew up with them. This desire for holy friendships with holy people is authentic and good. However, the #ThisCatholicGirl tragedy is a solid reminder of the real dangers that exist when meeting people online, no matter how authentic the community appears to be.
Pursue love safely, Catholic Twitter.