Trapped in an Imaginary World

Izabella Scott

The podcast series Sweet Bobby tells the story of a Sikh woman, Kirat Assi, who was subject to an elaborate online deception that lasted almost a decade. She fell in love with a man she met online named Bobby, a cardiologist living in New York, part of her wider Sikh community. After a serious accident in 2014, Bobby made Kirat his lifeline, and began to exert strict control over her life in London. He turned out to be an invention of Kirat’s cousin, Simran, a woman ten years her junior, who was running a network of more than fifty fake profiles centred on Bobby, many imitating real people. (There was a real Bobby, too, who lived in Brighton and had no idea his images were being repurposed.)

Simran was a teenager when she created Bobby’s profile. According to the podcast she had no obvious motive. After she confessed to the deception in June 2018, Kirat went to the police, but Simran’s actions did not fit any criminal offence outlined in UK legislation. MPs have debated catfishing in Parliament and the Crown Prosecution Service has revised its social media prosecution guidelines twice – but online impersonation is not itself a crime. (Unlike in France, where it was criminalised in 2011.)

For catfishing to be prosecuted – the term comes from Nev Schulman’s documentary Catfish (2010) – the impersonation has to be bound up with obscene messaging or plans for financial gain. But Simran had not offended or defrauded Kirat. She had trapped her in an imaginary world. The case was eventually dropped in 2020. The Police Complaints Board later found that Simran’s alleged behaviour, ‘while morally objectionable, does not violate legal statutes’.

While many ‘Tinder swindlers’ (as a recent Netflix series called them) plainly commit fraud, the motives of a lot of catfish are far more ambiguous. In some cases, a fake online identity seems to offer a form of wish-fulfilment, for catfish and victim alike. People on the hook often fall for the same improbable stories. Bobby claimed to have been shot in Kenya, presumed dead; he told Kirat he was part of a witness protection programme. The Tinder swindler Simon Leviev, posing as a diamond mogul, was constantly fleeing his ‘enemies’. What makes victims – Schulman calls them ‘hopefuls’ – keep believing? Do catfish offer the promise of a meaningful relationship that isn’t available in real life?

The catfish who contacted Schulman in 2007 was a total stranger, operating a family of fake profiles miles away. But many online deceptions are now conducted by friends, acquaintances or relatives, as with Simran and Kirat.

In Intimate Lies and the Law (2019), Jill Hasday examines a range of deceptions carried out by lovers or relatives. She reveals the US legal system’s bias against claims of deceit that involve an intimate partner, as opposed to a stranger. This was not always the case. At the turn of the 20th century, there were many more civil actions available to people who had been intimately deceived, like the ‘heartbalm’ torts which provided financial compensation for broken hearts.

Heartbalm actions are uncommon these days, with most abolished by statute (England got rid of them in 1970), but other avenues are open to victims of catfishing in the civil courts. In 2020, Yair Cohen, a specialist in the emerging field of social media law, took up Kirat’s case and made a successful civil claim, the first of its kind in relation to catfishing in the UK. Kirat was awarded damages for misuse of private information, harassment and infringement of personal data rights, and received a written apology from Simran.

The Sweet Bobby podcasters enter the scene after this civil resolution. Throughout the series, they consult scholars and barristers to suggest that there could be a criminal case against Simran after all; she may have violated the Serious Crime Act 2015 through her controlling behaviour, perhaps even committed a sex offence. In the last episode, it’s revealed that an appeal is underway, and the criminal case may be reopened.

The podcast is a way for Kirat to tell her side of the story. It’s also, perhaps, a form of revenge. Simran’s trial-by-podcast has real-world repercussions; in the final episode it’s revealed that she recently lost her job, which the presenter discloses with a trace of glee.

Simran’s very public shaming seems harsh. One of the things that’s so tricky about catfishing – reporting it, legislating it – is that the power dynamics are rarely clear-cut. Many of the catfish documented by Schulman enact their deceptions from a position of isolation or even shame. Simran is the podcast’s blindspot. She appears only as Kirat sees her: a motiveless psychopath, ‘not right in the head’. But it seems worth asking why someone might spend eight years creating an online world in novelistic detail, and why they might begin to live in it. Simran’s desire to exist in a fantasy world as another person should inspire a degree of sympathy.

The problem with legislating against deceptive behaviour as it intersects with identity production is that ‘deception’ is a fluid concept – in motion both legally and culturally, and influenced by time and place. As Hasday’s study reveals, many of the deception lawsuits in the US in the 20th century involved wives who sued husbands for being secretly gay, or people who took their lovers to court for passing as white.