Sometimes you watch something with a premise so implausible, so outrageous it has to be true. Some things remind you of the reality of the human condition: our willingness to accept and live lies; the ease with which we can be deceived and manipulated even when everything points to a con. It is hard to say whether this psychological trait is a product of gullibility and stupidity. Perhaps it is neither – perhaps it says more about our readiness to accept things at face value based on the assumption that people are basically decent and wouldn’t tell such obvious lies. More than a few people have found out the hard way the naïveté of this outlook, as the documentaries The Imposter and Catfish and the film based on a true story Compliance clearly show.
The documentary The Imposter is a textbook example of such a premise that, were it a work of fiction, you’d probably switch it off for being too far-fetched. Three years after the disappearance of 13 year old Texan Nicholas he is found alive half way across the world in Spain. He tells a story of kidnap and torture, and is returned to his family in the States, who appear to be oblivious to the increasing number of glaring inconsistencies with the son who disappeared and the teenager before them sporting stubble, a different appearance and a European accent. Their unquestioning acceptance of this rather obvious imposter is as notable as the audacity of the con itself.
The burning question as you watch The Imposter is “why?”, both from the point of view of the imposter and the family who accept him. For them, perhaps it is obvious – through burying their awareness of the con in the subconscious and going along with the charade they get to have their son back. Of course, such a scenario would inevitably collapse in on itself, sooner or later – which is precisely what happens. Frédéric Bourdin – the young Frenchman and serial imposter nicknamed “The Chameleon” by the press – soon came to the attention of a meticulous private investigator and the lies begin to unravel. It’s a riveting documentary which, with its use of actors for reconstructions, seems to blur the line between reality and artifice further.
A far more sinister and destructive imposter can be found in the film Compliance, in which a man who calls up a fast food restaurant claiming to be a police officer manages to trick the staff into committing increasingly outrageous acts. If The Imposter is as much about our willingness to be deceived, Compliance shows us our instinctive subservience to authority figures, no matter how absurd or immoral their instructions become. An accusation of theft levelled at a young by the fake police officer begins with a search of her belongings and ends with the audience wondering how on earth people would follow such obviously ridiculous instructions.
The success of Compliance rests largely on the uniformly excellent performances from a low-key cast (casting big stars would no doubt have detracted from the film, taking something away from the idea that this could happen to pretty much anyone). Dreama Walker gives a fine performance as Becky, the teenaged waitress accused of stealing, but it is Anne Dowd as her manager Sandra and Pat Healy as “Officer Daniels” who stand out – his leading questions and flattery manipulating the belleaguered woman into the position of co-conspirator.
The fact that, far from being a one-off incident, there were over 70 similar cases reported in over 30 states across America, serves to hammer home even further how the ludicrous-sounding premise reflects on human nature. But this natural propensity for obedience towards authority is well known to psychologists. The Milgram experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University, has repeatedly demonstrated how readily many people will conduct acts which violate their personal conscience when instructed by a figure of authority. The experiment consisted of the subject asking another volunteer (actually a member of the research team) questions from another room, delivering increasingly powerful electric shocks for incorrect answers. As the other screams of the other “volunteer” grew louder and the subject became increasingly uncomfortable, often asking if they could stop the experiment, the Experimenter gave the following verbal probs, in this order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
Only if they still wanted to stop after these four responses had been delivered was the experiment brought to an end – othwerwise it played out until the full 450 watts had been delivered to the other “volunteer”. The experiment shocked the psychology faculty, who had believed that only a tiny percentage of participants would go all the way – the result was 65%. While it is perhaps extreme to suggest that this implies that more than half the human race has psychopathic leanings, it does help us to understand how large groups can end up supporting such destructive ideologies as fascism.
The psychology of the imposter is clearly a different beast. Frédéric Bourdin was habitually stealing identities throughout his childhood and teens, and claims to have done so primarily to avoid being put into care. Quite how reliable his account is given his track record is open to debate; “Officer Daniels” on the other hand seems be a clear-cut case of sociopathic tendencies – he grins intensely the more degrading their behaviour gets, clearly deriving a sick vicarious pleasure from his fabricated position of power.
I recently discovered that a woman on Facebook – a friend of a friend – notorious for making belligerent comments, is actually a man. He’s something of an “Officer Daniels”-lite, projecting his inappropriate desires for control and domination through an avatar, dependent upon anonymity.
By contrast, the woman at the centre of Catfish, the documentary from 2010 about a fake online relationship, takes the idea of Facebook identity fraud several steps beyond using a fake name to get away with being abusive to strangers without facing repercussions. It shows the developing relationship between New York photographer Nev Schulman and an 8-year-old girl from Michigan; a “child prodigy” who sends Nev paintings of his photographs. As he develops a relationship with her and her family an online romance develops with her older sister Megan. As evidence emerges revealing a string of lies, the reality of the situation and the level of deception becomes clearer.
While there are many who believe Catfish to be a clever contrivance rather than a genuine documentary, the commentary it offers on vacarious living through online avatars remains potent. Whether it’s a housewife acting out romantic fantasies with the assistance of a web of fake online friends and relatives or a pervert grooming a schoolkid, there are around a billion Facebook users in the world – who knows how many of them aren’t who they say they are?
Some of them could well be government agents. A study from last year from the Mediterranean Council for Intelligence Studies pointed to the use of social media as “the new cutting edge in open-source tactical intelligence collection”, but the real presence of intelligence agencies may extend to the use of fake identities promoting propanganda and identify potential dissidents. In addition recent revelations from the Los Angeles Times outline the Cyber Corps program, where university students are learning how to hack accounts and mine digital data before moving on to a career at the CIA or NSA. Meanwhile, defence contractors Raytheon have secretly developed software which data mines social networks capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting their behaviour.
The next time you’re accepting a friend request or debating politics on Facebook you may well ask yourself who they really are.