Jan. 17, 2013 at 5:54 PM ET
In a world where, on any given day, someone is forwarding that email that says Bill Gates will share his Microsoft fortune with you, is it really that hard to believe Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o had no clue that dead "girlfriend" Lennay Kekua — whom he allegedly knew only from the Internet — didn't really exist?
That Microsoft free-money hoax has been circulating cyberspace since at least 1997, yet humanity's Fox Mulder-like willingness to believe the most ridiculously obvious bucket of horse hockey isn't to be discounted.
And as P.T. Barnum reminded us long before the Internet existed, there are plenty of other people willing to fill the needs of such victims … and an even larger audience ready to bathe in the sweet sweet Schadenfreude that results. It doesn't even matter, as in this case, whether we believe anybody really fell for the hoax or not.
In the 24 hours since Deadspin broke the story — that Te’o’s girlfriend dying of leukemia following a car accident was a hoax he may or may not have known about — "Te'oing" is now a thing happening on the Internet. In a somewhat cruel twist on "Tebowing," people pose in photos with their arms around someone who isn't there, and post them on Tumblr and/or Twitter.
If Te'o truly is the victim, mocking this grieving, hoaxed and apparently not-very-bright person is not a very nice thing to do. Then again, if Te'o is in on the hoax, then it's open season. Until (and unless) Te'o has his Come-to-Oprah moment, we may never know the truth.
One thing we do know, however, is like Bill Gates giving away free money, or the infamous Neiman Marcus $250 chocolate chip cookie recipe, this isn't the first, or even the meanest Internet hoax in the history of dead Nigerian princes. The question is, what motivates these Internet perpetrators to prey on the easily swayed?
The dead Nigerian prince, which hopefully you know of and steer clear of by now, is a mainstay of the 419 scam, or "Advance Fee Fraud," in which a foreigner — sometimes the widow of deceased royalty — needs your money to help move more money outside the country. This grift, which did a booming business in the salad days of snail mail, still does OK on the Internet.
Feigning death or other grave circumstances to scam money is, at least, understandable. Because, you know, money.
Other forms of Internet hoax, like fabricating cancer victims such as the fake Lennay and her fake leukemia, often serve to reap sympathy, or cause humiliation, or both.
For three years, a family's battle with cancer was chronicled in a "family" blog and on Facebook. It engaged hundreds of Internet users, who believed the model-handsome Kevin San Roman, who lived in Spain, suffered from leukemia.
As the Miami Herald reported, there were young women who never met "Kevin" or his equally attractive brother "Lucas," yet believed they were romantically involved with these men. To add drama to the story, which is all it was, there was a young cancer-afflicted baby cousin named Katy.
At least one young women who engaged in ongoing text messages and phone calls with "Lucas" grew increasingly suspicious. With the help of Miami-Dade prosecutors, she determined that the entire San Roman family was actually the figment of a 28-year-old Florida woman's imagination. Once the truth came to light — virtually, at least — "the San Romans" disappeared from the Internet. The scam, it seems, was about attention, not money.
If more than a few young women believed they were dating "Kevin" and/or "Lucas," whom they never met, then why couldn't this young college football star believe something similar?
As fantastic as this, or the T'eo story, may seem, Google "cancer hoax" and you'll get plenty of news stories that have more in common than not: Many are about scamming donations, but plenty more serve for no other reason than to manipulate the beliefs and emotions of the Internet's most credulous.
Here's one from last November, about 9-year-old Alex Jordan, whose battle with cancer rallied a community, and whose death inspired the local high school football team. Except he never existed either.
And here's a whole bunch of kids with terminal cancer who wanted to set the world record in receiving the most business cards and/or birthday cards. One of the kids actually existed, but most did not. Tell the truth. Which kid's email did your mom — if not you — forward or "like" on Facebook at some point in your Internet existence?
As we shake our heads, certain that this could never happen to us — that the Internet's own advances make it harder and harder for scam artists to operate under the cover of darkness — we are willfully scamming ourselves into forgetting human nature.
Google Street View, Skype and FaceTime may bring real-world "proof" to the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg may insist that anonymity must be obliterated, and tools like Spokeo may make it easier for us to check dubious facts (at least for a fee) ... yet none of this will ever completely obliterate our willingness to believe "gullible" isn't in the dictionary. (Seriously, it's not. Go check!)
It's like that 20-year-old New Yorker cartoon, the one where the dog, sitting in front of a computer, tells his friend, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're not a Notre Dame linebacker's fake dead girlfriend."