Diane O'Meara tells a cautionary tale about the
potential dangers of social media.
Diane O'Meara appears on NBC News' Today show. She is the
woman whose face was pictured on the Twitter account of
Lennay Kekua - the fictitious online girlfriend of Notre
Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. Photo by NBC and Reuters.
Earlier this month, when the website Deadspin.com broke the
story of American footballer Manti Te'o's non-existent
girlfriend, I heard from several friends, all with some
version of the same message: ''That girl in the hoax
photographs looks exactly like you.''
There was a reason for that. The photographs were of me,
though I had no idea until the story broke that they had been
used to create a false identity for a woman who never
existed, Lennay Kekua.
Here's how it happened.
As someone in my mid-20s, I am of the generation that uses
social media to connect with friends, family and business
associates. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: These are the ways
we communicate. And like most of my generation, I didn't give
a lot of thought to the word ''friend'' in the social media
sphere. If someone sent me a friend request, more often than
not I accepted it. As a result, I found myself with a lot of
friends, including some I barely knew. One of them was a guy
I had only a passing acquaintance with but who had gone to my
I thought I had been careful with the privacy settings on my
Facebook and Instagram accounts. I kept up with Facebook's
privacy policies and took advantage of privacy tools. My
private profile was not searchable by anyone who was not a
''friend of a friend''. I even limited access to photos of me
that were posted by other people and tagged on my profile.
And I made sure that every post and tag that was on my
timeline was there because I allowed it to be there. But that
wasn't enough. Even with restrictive settings, my wide circle
of ''friends'' still had access to many pictures of me, and I
had no control over what they did with those pictures.
Te'o speaks at a media day in Miami, Florida, on January 5.
The American football star's on-field excellence after his
grandmother and online girlfriend purportedly died made him
a hero in the sports media. Photo by Reuters.
One person abused that access. Many details remain
unclear, but it now appears that the casual high school
acquaintance whose ''friend'' request I accepted, took my
pictures, and they were used to create the fictitious persona
of Lennay Kekua. The imaginary woman then became bait to hook a
talented college football player, Manti Te'o, who became
romantically interested in her. Ultimately, the scammer told
Te'o the woman had died of leukemia, leaving the football
player apparently heartbroken on the eve of a big game.
All that I've just described occurred without my knowledge,
and I still can't quite believe it all happened. But looking
back on it now, there are things I wish I'd done differently,
even though the precautions I took exceeded those of many
A lot of the image theft would have been impossible if I'd
been more selective about those I designated friends. Most of
the photographs were simply copied from my postings by
another social media user. But I also agreed after the man
now suspected of creating ''Lennay Kekua'' asked me
repeatedly to supply him with a photograph that wasn't on
In a series of increasingly frantic messages in December, he
asked me to get in touch with him, saying, ''It's an
emergency'' and assuring me ''I'm not hitting on you''. When
I finally did make contact, he told me that he was trying to
cheer up his cousin, who'd been nearly killed in a car
accident and was awaiting surgery for head trauma.
The cousin had seen my picture and thought I was pretty, and
this man thought it would help his cousin's state to get a
photograph of me. At the time, of course, I knew nothing of
the whole Lennay Kekua affair, and, although I resisted
several times, this man's story about his cousin made me feel
guilty for not sending an innocent photo to a person awaiting
surgery. So I sent a picture. He asked for others, but I sent
I've shut down all my social media accounts. I realise that's
not a long-term solution. I use social media to connect with
a network of friends and family, and with business
associates. I thought I was aware of the dangers and had done
everything I could to protect myself. I now understand that
the large corporations that control social media will never
provide adequate protection by themselves. Users must take
extraordinary steps to protect themselves.
Eventually, I'll go back to using social media. But I'll take
an even more cautious approach. I'll have a new definition of
who I agree to ''friend''. My friends will be those who I
actually know and trust. There are a billion Facebook users,
140 million Twitter users and more than 90 million Instagram
users. Some of them are predators. The face appropriated to
be Lennay Kekua could have been yours just as easily as mine.
Ask yourself: Can you say for certain that pictures you've
shared through social media have not been stolen to create
another identity? A month ago, I might have answered that
question 'yes'. If my story had not included a high-profile
sports figure, I would probably have never known my image had
- Diane O'Meara is a media executive and consumer
internet analyst and advocate based in Los Angeles. She wrote
this for the Los Angeles Times.