A Samoan Hoax

Manti Te’o has been in the news a lot these past few days because Notre Dame’s star linebacker and inspirational leader was apparently pranked.  He had captured football fans’ hearts throughout the season, leading his team to an undefeated record and to the national championship game despite the fact that his grandmother and his girlfriend had both died on the same day last September. Yet he recently found out that his girlfriend was imaginary, a group of people had spent four years convincing him that Lennay Kekua, a Stanford undergraduate dying of leukemia, was out there and, eventually, falling in love with him.

I started reading these news stories because the focus is all on how digital technologies allow people to be so fooled – they first made contact through Facebook, and then had some video chats in which the video wasn’t working on Lennay Kekua’s end. I have researched how people use new media in romantic relationships, so this story seemed right up my alley. But I didn’t realize how much this story was up my alley. Te’o is a Samoan migrant from Hawai`i. And before I studied new media and romance, I spent two and a half years doing fieldwork among Samoan migrants.

None of the news stories are commenting on the fact that Manti Te’o is Samoan. The reporters are wondering whether he was truly hoaxed, or whether he was complicit. Why didn’t he ever insist on visiting his girlfriend in person? They had been in touch for four years after all – chatting by Facebook message, texting, calling each other on the phone. How could he not be a bit suspicious? But in wondering all these questions, they never ask what his cultural background might be – what ideas about truth and verification did he learn growing up in a Samoan migrant community, especially one that was so religious (in his case, Mormon)?

So as an ethnographer of Samoan migrants, I want to say that I heard a number of stories that sound almost exactly like Manti Te’o’s story — naïve Christian golden boys who had been fooled by other Samoans pretending to be dewy-eyed innocents. Leukemia was even a theme, I guess Samoan pranksters keep turning to the same diseases over and over again. But I did this fieldwork before Facebook or cell phones, and even before email became all that widespread outside of college circles. All the stories I heard involved husky voices on telephones, and maybe a letter or two.

Reading Jeremy Schaap’s interview with Manti Te’o on ESPN (http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/8859544/highlights-manti-teo-interview-jeremy-schaap), what strikes me as particularly Samoan about this story? Manti Te’o opens with a very familiar Samoan worry – it is not his own shame he is concerned about, he is worried about the shame this will bring to his whole family, all those who share his last name. And this concern with family comes up time and time again. He chooses family reunions over possibly seeing his elusive girlfriend. He understands when she is forced to do the same. Family obligations always triumph, and often seem to keep lovers apart, even in Samoan love stories I heard where the couple had seen each other often in person. Te’o is deeply concerned about how his parents will react to his new girlfriend, with the tacit undercurrent in the interview that this is not just about two people falling in love, but two families entering into a complex alliance that will involve many mutual obligations in the future. He tries to find ways to have this fictional Lennay Kekua enter into his family’s circle as a thoughtful Christian potential daughter-in-law, encouraging her to text passages of Scripture to his various members of his family regularly. The one part of the interview that I personally found strange was, that upon hearing that his girlfriend had died, he only sent white roses to her family, and his parents also only sent flowers. The Samoan migrants that I knew would have sent money, and the amount would have signaled to everyone how much the family as a whole was valuing the potential alliance between the two families. Flowers alone really wouldn’t have cut it.

At some point Jeremy Schaap asks Manti Te`o if he had asked any other Samoans from L.A. if they knew Lennay Kekua. After all, Jeremy Schaap reasons, Samoans in L.A. are a tight-knit community, surely Manti could have checked with someone. Manti said he didn’t, although he does mention trying earlier to check with his male cousins about whether Lennay Kekua was a good girl. When I read Jeremy Schaap’s question, I thought — of course Te’o didn’t ask anyone. Being in a tight-knit community also means that gossip circulates faster than a viral YouTube. And asking about anyone lets everyone else know far too much about your personal business. Te’o would be risking his potential girlfriend’s reputation by asking about her. Practically the only people he could ask safely would be his male cousins, who would be far more like his brothers in terms of closeness and loyalty than most Americans’ experiences of their same-sex cousins. And he certainly couldn’t ask his female cousins, that would have been inappropriate (although, in my experience, more inappropriate for Samoans living in Samoa than for those who have migrated elsewhere).

So much of this news story is hauntingly familiar to me from fieldwork with Samoan migrants: the role of family, the half-hearted attempts to verify a person’s identity that fail, the strong spiritual connection Te’o thought he felt with Kekua, and the hoax itself. The question for me is not how digital technology allowed this hoax to happen, or whether Te’o was duped in the first place. The question is how very culturally specific ways of circulating knowledge and understanding what is true will continue to be used with new media – that is, what happens when Samoan ways of assessing others start to involve Facebook, texting, and video chats? What social workarounds do Samoans have to invent to continue using their ways of judging other people? And is Manti Te’o’s current travails an example of what happens when these culturally specific practices fail? Seeing this as only a story about digital technologies and their risks is to overlook how cultural everyone’s communication is.

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