Caught in a web of love and lies

A Channel 4 film on Nigerian internet-dating scams posed questions about trust today, but provided few answers.

David Bowden

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TV’s refusal to die is becoming one of the great puzzles of our time. In the internet age, we were reliably informed, savvy audiences would no longer gather round the idiot box at set times to watch increasingly drab and unimaginative programming; reality TV would do away with all the hierarchical distinctions between programme-makers and audience, allowing everyone to be the star of their own film.

Zadie Smith’s oft-cited New York Review of Books essay ‘Generation Why?’, which uses a review of The Social Network to discuss the rise of Facebook, echoed much of the fear of the professional artist gazing upon a brave new world of Generation 2.0. This new generation have ‘spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or politics’ but, it turns out, ‘have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world.’

The criticism of The Social Network – which could be summed up as ‘ageing hipster screenwriter and director take a pot-shot on scary new usurping world of web geeks’ – may have been fair, but as The Economist noted to some surprise last year, television is still booming. Why? Partly, it explained, because ‘the lazy medium’ may have low opinions of its audiences, but TV isn’t up itself too much to forget to give the public what it wants.

A glimpse of that old magic could be seen in the rather artfully scheduled 419: The Internet Romance Scam, which was shown early last Friday evening. The film was a short documentary in Channel 4’s First Cut strand, which specialises in new film-makers investigating the quirkier side of life. For example, this week’s First Cut offering is about grown-ups who dress as superheroes to fight crime. The ‘419’ in the title referred to the penal code in Nigeria which relates to online fraud, something for which the country has become somewhat notorious. First Cut films are generally hallmarked by that ‘humane’ and ‘non-judgemental’ quality of earnest young film-makers and this was no exception, taking us face-to-face with intelligent, articulate yet lonely and desperate middle-aged women scarcely able to believe how foolish they’d been in surrendering their life savings to a silver-tongued lothario who they’d never even met. ‘It was like I was in a trance’, said one, bewildered by her nonsensical actions. Ah, that ol’ devil strikes again.

In an attempt to give an edge to what is surely one of the oldest stories in the business, Barney Lankester-Owen attempted to give us the perspective of the scammer, interviewing one articulate Computer Studies graduate who’s since reformed his ways. The observation that these scams are thrilling for the con artist, involving all the same tricks of fantasy and illusion as seduction but requiring none of the physical interaction, perhaps posed some interesting questions over the nature of what it means to have intimacy in an online age. But the conclusion – that these scams somehow contribute to the decline of trust in modern society – felt trite. That the lonely and desperate, whether for love nor money, can do silly and cynical things to a person hardly felt like a revelation to anyone who’s ever been in love or, indeed, skint.

Which brings us back to the cleverness of the scheduling. Ostensibly carrying a public service announcement remit – beware of online fraudsters – you ultimately felt that anyone at home on Friday evening desperately looking for love and liable to hand over their life savings to some bloke over the internet would probably not decide to watch a programme about sad-sacks being lured by charming online fraudsters. Really, 419 was a reassuring morality play for happy couples warming up for a Friday night in front of the sofa with a bottle of red wine, looking to remind themselves of the horrors awaiting them in the single world, or embittered singletons too savvy to get ensnared but looking for a good excuse to not get out into the scary world of dating.

Which broadly summarises the target audiences of most dating shows. These programmes veer wildly between the cruel – Snog, Marry, Avoid, which is truly nasty in a way only something operating under BBC3’s veneer of public-service broadcasting could be – and the heartwarming. The retro stylings of ITV hit Take Me Out, where 30 women compete for the attentions of a single man, has no doubt upset academic feminists but it does possess an undeniable populist appeal. The show seems utterly uninterested in the nonsense neuroscience and evolutionary psychology of most dating manuals, which themselves feed off the increasing awkwardness of intimacy in an age where informal social rituals (particularly between genders) are regulated like never before. Instead, the show takes a spirited, old-fashioned approach to sex and relationships. You can play as many silly games as you wish, and follow whatever barking-mad seduction technique you prefer, but ultimately if you fancy the pants off each other it’ll work out in the end. It also helps if you’re both drunk. It somehow appeals to happy couples and eager young singletons getting ready to go out on the pull, which generally implies it’s doing something right.

As our online and ‘real world’ lives become increasingly blurred and dating rituals come and go, the basic mechanics of it all largely stay the same – though the varieties and methods of online dating were explored with some fascination in a recent New Yorker piece. If anything was guilty of undermining society’s trust in 419: The Real Internet Romance, it was the underlying assumption that the technology itself was somehow to blame. As one of the potential fraudsters pointed out to his deluded sweetheart fending off questions from the benefit agencies about where her inheritance had gone, there is no law against somebody giving all their money away to a lover regardless of whether he is a Nigerian fraudster or not. It had a certain grim logic to it but, as the song goes, everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

The very real questions about declining trust and the substance of ‘online communities’ go a lot deeper than a few broken hearts, and that really would’ve been a more rewarding topic of study, though possibly not as much fun on a Friday night in.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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