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What is a 'Catfish' hoax? How Manti Te'o story links to film, TV show

Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o.
Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o.Jeff Haynes / Reuters file

As the sports world reacts to the unraveling of the legend surrounding Notre Dame football standout Manti Te'o and his role in what appears to be an elaborate Internet hoax, the term "Catfish" keeps rising to the surface.

There's a reason why, and it has little to do with the fish as most people know it.

"Catfish" is the title of a 2010 independent documentary film (watch the trailer below) that followed the story of Nev Schulman as he set out to meet "Megan," a woman he made contact with and fell in love with online. Nev and Megan chatted on Facebook, sent each other flirty text messages, and spoke on the phone. As their relationship developed over a period of many months, Nev attempted to meet his love in person. But every time plans were made, Megan found a reason not to follow through.

In light of the Te'o scandal, it's probably clear where this is going. Like Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua, Megan didn't really exist. The film ends (spoiler alert here) with Nev confronting Angela Wesselman, the woman who created the mythical, wonderful Megan, and asking, calmly, "Why?" Wesselman's husband Vince Pierce offers Nev a little insight by way of folktale, telling Nev that in the early days of transporting cod from Alaska to China, the fish were arriving in Asia lethargic and atrophied. The solution? Put some catfish in with the cod to keep the cod agile. "And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes," Pierce said. "They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.

"Catfish" the film lives on as "Catfish: The TV Show," currently airing on MTV. Hosted by Schulman and fellow filmmaker Max Joseph, the two take on the stories of men and women who suspect they're being "Catfished."

Schulman has weighed in on Te'o's situation, saying, "My reaction is, quite frankly, no different from my reaction on the show. It doesn't really change anything for me that this victim is a high-profile football player. I think it can and obviously does happen to anyone," he said.

As for the specifics of Te'o's situation, Schulman told MTV that he was actually contacted in December 2012 by a woman, Donna Tei, claiming her photos were being used by someone with a connection to Kekua.

"Someone tweeted at me, because she was trying to get a hold of me to help her with something related to her image being used in some kind of 'Catfish' hoax," he told MTV News Wednesday . And, having just heard of the story, I went into my 'Catfish' email account, and I have an email from this said person from December that I had not seen, where she does ask for help in regards to someone who was using her picture to create a fake profile. So there's definitely a connection, and this person obviously knows of me and the show and was making an effort to somehow get to the bottom of this."

Schulman has taken up the story, tweeting Thursday morning a message that implies he's getting close to finding out more about just who was behind Kekua's fake profile, and the illusory relationship that developed between her and Te'o. "However this #Manti story ends, it doesn't change that we are all the victims of a #Catfish," he wrote.

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