Pop Culture

'Catfish' reels in 'cruel' cyberbullies in season three

Pamela Littky / Today
"Catfish" hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph.

"Catfish," MTV's hit docuseries about online relationships based on fake social media profiles, is going to "catch some bigger fish" when it kicks off season three Wednesday.

So says host Nev Schulman, whose 2010 documentary "Catfish" — relating his own experience as the victim of an Internet imposter — spawned the TV series. (The term coined by Schulman was embraced by the media after football star Manti Te'o's own imaginary romance was exposed in January 2013.)

Schulman and his co-host, Max Joseph, told TODAY that in season three, they are shifting their focus from romantic relationships to serious offenses such as cyberbullying and stalking, "people who are using the Internet for really bad reasons," Schulman said.

With the show's popularity over the past two years, "a lot more people are informed now about what red flags to look for and they're more careful about talking to people online," said Joseph. Now they're zooming in on "very sophisticated catfish" and "people with cruel intentions."

The impossibly charismatic co-hosts are celebrated for their generosity of spirit, even toward the people they expose as catfish. After all, many of them hid behind fake identities because they were deeply insecure about their appearance or conflicted about their sexuality.

"We really do make an effort to relate to people, be compassionate, give them an opportunity to explain themselves," Schulman told us. "That's made it really appealing for people to finally have an opportunity (to) talk about how they're feeling, come clean, take off their masks and reveal themselves and finally move on with their lives — and do it in a positive way in a situation where they know they're not going to be ridiculed or screamed at. "

But this season they're dealing with a different breed of catfish.

"If you're not catfishing someone for romantic reasons, then it's going to be hard to sympathize and be compassionate with someone who is doing it for revenge, who's doing it for fun and games, who's doing it because they want to be on TV," Joseph said.  

"These are much more sinister motivations," he added. "We've seen people who don't seem to be in touch with humanity as much, and it's frightening to see and it's hard to deal with and it tests your mettle. ... We both have a lot of darkness in our souls after this season, I must admit."

"This is a winter season," Schulman noted, "so there was a little less sunlight on all accounts, from every direction. But I always do my best to stay hopeful and positive."

Maybe the best way to do that is by helping those who have been victimized by "cyberpaths."

"What's actually happened a bunch this season is that people have gone to the police and the police tell them that there's really nothing they can do," Joseph explained. "There's basically a still major gray area surrounding Internet fraud, and apparently the only people that are experts in these areas are Nev and myself."

But even the experts have been fooled.

"We can't weed them all out," Schulman admitted when asked about fame seekers using the show for their own 15 minutes in the spotlight.

"One person this season very much claimed to have chosen our show as a means to finally reveal themselves and claim their stake as the sort of 'queen catfish.' ... It made us feel crappy and used and taken advantage of and exploited, because we don't want to make a show that rewards people for catfishing and manipulating others."

So how can "Catfish" adapt and evolve in future seasons?

"I think there's a lot more we can do with this show," Schulman told TODAY. "I think there's still a lot of room for deception and trickery, and obviously online relationships are a growing phenomenon."

"And also, until there is a proper set of laws and guidelines established by our government as to what is acceptable and legal on the Internet, I think Max and I need to be out there bringing people to justice, setting people straight, and helping people use the Internet in a positive and constructive way," Schulman added. "And if that's a job that only we can do, then I think we're just going to have to keep doing it."

"Catfish" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV.