In September 2021 in Northern Italy a young man was found dead by suicide. A little over a year later, only a few kilometres away, a 64-year-old man was found beside a bottle of pills by his elderly mother.

His death completed a tragic circle that has raised questions over catfishing, media ethics and the role of social media in our lives.

The result is two heartbroken families, but the way this point was reached raises wider issues for society well beyond the humble locale that bore witness.

The idea of ‘catfishing’ is one that has come to the public attention with the boom of the internet. It involves someone creating a fake persona on social media, usually to ensnare a specific victim.

The term was coined in the 2020 documentary Catfish which followed the story of Nev Schulman, who had begun a relationship with what he thought was a 19-year-old girl. A television series of the same name saw Schulman help members of the public determine if their relationships involved ‘catfishing’, with he and the victim confronting the perpetrators at the end of the show.

The practice has even been used by so-called ‘paedophile hunters’, who pose as underage children to ensnare suspected sex offenders – something which has been praised as both enabling legitimate complaints to be raised and criticised for allowing vigilantes to levy unproven accusations.

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It’s a debate which has exploded into the news agenda in Italy after a catfishing incident ended in a double suicide and questions over the ethics of media reporting.

At the centre of the storm is a programme broadcast by Le Iene about the tragic tale of a young man.

On September 23, 2021, a 24-year-old from Forlì in the Emilia-Romagna region named only as Daniele was found dead, with the verdict ruled as suicide. The young man was described as well-groomed, sporty and active and had recently started working with his father’s construction company.

Though their son was indubitably shy he’d never exhibited any signs of mental ill health, at least not that his parents could detect. Heartbroken and looking for answers they began to search for clues in Daniele’s social media messages and texts.

There they found over 8,000 messages on WhatsApp between their son and a beautiful 20-year-old named Irene Martini, as well as her sister Claudia and brother Braim.

The pair exchanged messages and declarations of love – always by text, never any phonecalls, picture messages or video chats - for more than a year before the 24-year-old, thanks to some photos he found on the internet, realised he was being catfished.

The beautiful young woman with whom Daniele had been conversing was entirely fictional, made up by 64-year-old Roberto Zaccaria from nearby Forlimpopoli.

In a suicide note the young man addressed his brother, urging him not to “make the same mistakes” he had, writing “I’ve never had a friend, never had a girlfriend. I’ve been alone all my life”.

His parents accused Zaccaria of subjecting their son to a form of “psychological torture”. Under article 494 of the Italian penal code “impersonating a person” for personal gain or to “cause damage” to another person is a crime, of which the 64-year-old was convicted and fined €825. It’s believed that prosecutors had opened an investigation into a possible charge of ‘death as a consequence of another crime', though charges were not filed. Meanwhile, Mediaset show Le Iene produced a report.

Its name translating to ‘The Hyenas’, Le Iene has been described as a sort of Italian version of The Daily Show. It offers a comedic take on the events of the day, as well as a gonzo-style journalism that sees them confront story subjects with cameras and probing questions.

On November 1 they ran the story of Daniele, tracking down Zaccaria when he was pushing his elderly mother in her wheelchair. Correspondent Matteo Viviani confronted him over the younger man’s death, with the 64-year-old’s face blurred by the cameras. However, Le Iene received criticism that the man was easily identifiable in a town of just 13,000 people, particularly given his distinctive tattoos were on full display.

HeraldScotland: Viviani confronts the catfisherViviani confronts the catfisher (Image: Screenshot)

Viviani asked him repeatedly “are you Irene Martini?”, with Zaccari telling them repeatedly to “go away”. His mother was knocked against a wall. Eventually the programme got a single statement: “it was a joke, the lad had mental problems”.

According to his lawyers, the catfisher received threats, insults and exhortations to “burn in hell”, which had been reported to the local police. On Sunday November 6 he, too, took his own life, discovered in his home by his mother after ingesting a cocktail of pills.

A lawyer for Zaccaria’s family, Pier Paolo Benini, accused Le Iene of being irresponsible.

He told La Stampa: “Personally I think they could have reconstructed the the events without the ‘intrusion’ in the piece.”

The death of the 64-year-old has opened a discussion in the country about responsible reporting, while Zaccaria’s family have announced their intention to sue Mediaset for ‘incitement to suicide’.

On Tuesday Le Iene returned to the air and attempted to tackle the issue. Presenters Belén Rodriguez and Teo Mammuccari began: “We want to talk about something that happened on Sunday and that left us really shaken. It’s something very complex which a lot of you are discussing and we will not shy away from the debate."

Viviani, the correspondent in the original package, described it as “a tragedy within a tragedy which not only does not leave us indifferent, but has deeply affected us all”. He went on to point out that the programme had covered catfishing on numerous occasions, “cases which fortunately did not have this tragic epilogue”. He went on to ask if the laws and tools needed to protect people from catfishing were in place, or robust enough.

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Le Iene concluded “continuing to deal with the phenomenon is important, because learning to recognise the problem is the first step to defending oneself against it”.

The reaction was mixed. National newspaper il Riformista called it “a lot of rhetoric from those who often manage to occupy multiple roles – judge, magistrate, and ‘journalist’ – within the same transmission”. They accused the Mediaset show of ‘pseudo-investigative’ journalism and looking to find a ‘monster’ to put in front of the cameras.

It’s not the first time Le Iene have found themselves in the crosshairs. In April 2010 the programme received a report from a young boy from the lower Bergamo area who accused a priest of having molested him. They sent a young actor, who pretended to be a minor and homosexual, to meet the priest where a hidden camera appeared to show him touching and trying to kiss the young man. The clergyman’s name was never revealed and his face was blurred, but he was identified by his church and sacked. In November of that year the priest took his own life.

It remains to be seen whether there will be any action taken against the programme for the report they produced on the tragic case of Daniele. What the whole case says about catfishing and internet culture is also difficult to ascertain.