Denver, Colo., Sep 14, 2016 / 06:02 am (CNA).- Catholic Twitter has been catfished. To define some terms, Catholic Twitter is a subculture where (mostly young) and hipster-lifestyle-inclined Catholics follow each other, share ideas, and tweet about faith, life and everything in between. For some, it can serve as a faith community in an otherwise very secular world. Strong friendships, and even relationships, forged in the Catholic Twitter forum are not uncommon.
Catfishing, then, is an internet-ism that refers to someone pretending to be someone they’re not on social media sites, such as Facebook. (For an explanation of the marriage of fish and internet terminology, check out this article by Slate. TL;DR, it’s from a movie.) Today, Catholic Twitter found out that one of their own had been catfishing. The popular account @ThisCatholicGirl, which had amassed thousands of followers (a feat on Catholic Twitter) was outed as a fake this week in a blog post by Chase Padusniak, a graduate student in English at Princeton University who writes for Patheos and Catholic Vote.
The account, which has since been deleted, catered to “both to angsty Catholic twenty-somethings and 17-year-old girls with Disney fantasies,” easily mixed a traditional faith with slightly left-leaning politics, and featured pictures of exotic travels and the beautiful girl (supposedly) behind the account, making her a well-liked Catholic Twitter-er.
Over the course of about six months, Padusniak formed a friendship with This Catholic Girl. They chatted about “really banal” things when they were bored, and would occasionally check in with each other. After a while, things got more serious. Occasional check-ins became daily texts and snapchats.
Both students, the two started dating in March, figuring a post-school-year meet-up would soon be feasible. Even as she put off the in-person meeting, everything about Elspeth “El” Howard - the presumed single Catholic 20-something college student behind the successful account - seemed real. “She had pictures, a Millennial sense of humor, constant and varied activity, several social media sites, including a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, an Instagram, an Academia.edu, and a blog,” he wrote. “El would send me snapchats of her face, videos of her voice talking to her niece and nephew, and talk to me on the phone almost every night for hours at a time.
Her schedule always made sense. She’d visit the Southwest and upload pictures of New Mexico; she’d be off to San Francisco and pop up in shots near the Golden Gate Bridge. (S)he did the Camino, a major Catholic pilgrimage, and came back with picture after picture from along the Way.”
Her reasons for cancelling their meetings also seemed believable. When her grandmother died, she posted pictures asking for prayers. Then her parents separated, followed by her sister and her sister’s husband. But eventually, the cancellations became suspicious, and a friend convinced Padusniak to ask El for a photo of herself with a piece of paper with Chase’s name on it - a standard safeguard against catfishing.
From there, things unraveled, and it became clear that she was not the young, single college-aged Catholic she had been purporting to be, but a 30-year-old married woman, with social media accounts for her real person as well Elspeth Howard. She had been hiding behind photos swiped from the internet, a program that could upload photos to Snapchat, and photoshopped pictures, to name a few things. The reaction on Catholic Twitter was a mixture of shock, anger and disappointment - amidst a strong call to prayer and forgiveness for the real person behind the account, and advice to take the incident as a warning.
In e-mail comments to CNA, Padusniak said he wrote the piece not to shame the woman behind @ThisCatholicGirl, but he said he felt it was the right thing to do to let her followers know about her true identity. “I felt I had a responsibility to let people know so they could heal, forgive, and pray for this person, who is clearly deeply in need of our love.”
Padusniak said he has appreciated that the reaction to his piece has been mostly heartfelt, with people offering him kind words and prayers. Some reactions, though, have been more angry, negative or sarcastic. It’s understandable, Padusniak said, because many people were hurt by this woman’s deception, but ultimately he said that the woman behind @ThisCatholicGirl is the one who is most in need of prayers, love and forgiveness at this time.
“She hurt a lot of people and that's horrible, but she's not an evil person; she's hurt, broken, stuck in darkness,” he said. Padusniak said that while he does feel hurt about being lied to, he doesn’t otherwise feel particularly violated by the situation, because the deception of @ThisCatholicGirl was so widespread and affected not just him but many others.
Another person on Catholic Twitter, who preferred to remain anonymous, relayed to Catholic News Agency that he had had a similarly confusing and deceitful experience with El after they had formed a relationship over the social media forum. But it could have been so much worse, Padusniak said.
“This woman didn't try to take money from me. We're Catholic, so it wasn't a sexual relationship. She turned to this in pain, maybe loneliness, and we'd do best to keep that in mind. Again, she has hurt many (her husband included), but the reality is that most people know less about this than I do; they don't understand that this person hurt others not from some deep, malicious evil, but from sadness,” he added.
When asked if he could give his past self advice to protect himself from catfishing, Padusniak said he does wish he would have video chatted with El to confirm her identity, even though he is usually averse to video chatting.
“I would certainly tell my former self to video chat at least once - it's an easy way to check, even if you aren't a fan of the medium,” he said. Looking back, the only other suspicious thing about El’s online presence was that there seemed to be very few if any photos of her uploaded by other people, and very few photos of her with other people.
“At minimum, it's a good sign that someone is real if they appear with others, especially in others' pictures,” he said. Several times in his comments, Padusniak reiterated that while the incident hurt him and many others, the person who is most suffering the fallout of this incident is the woman behind the facade, who largely acted out of sadness and loneliness rather than out of true malice, he said.
He asked that Catholic Twitter and all who hear about her story offer @ThisCatholicGirl prayers and forgiveness. “She's repenting, and that's all we can ask. Who of us has not been in need of forgiveness? The only Christian response is love and forgiveness.”