Last week's episode of MTV's Catfish took a surprising turn when a social media paramour was revealed to be a Russian operative seeking to upend U.S. politics via social media.
Two years ago, LaPlace, Louisiana resident Darnell Duplessis commented with a praise-hands emoji on a high school friend's Facebook post condemning anti-Confederate monument efforts as revisionist; Shelley Rogers responded to him with an invitation to a pro-monument demonstration organized by Louisianians for the Preservation of Everything Except the Wetlands (LPEEW). After clicking on her profile, which featured a picture of a bikini-clad woman on a beach (who Catfish hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph later identified as a model from Belarus), he says, "it was love at first sight."
Duplessis and Rogers began communicating through Facebook messenger, sharing articles about Hillary Clinton, gun control, immigration, and self-love. But Rogers ultimately was unable to make it to the pro-monument demonstration, or the six other demonstrations to which she'd invite Duplessis in the 16 months they communicated leading up to the November 2016 presidential election. And in spite of their intensifying affair - they read books together and sent each other nudie pics - she wouldn't talk to him on the phone or via video and she was never available to meet up even though she claimed to live 30 minutes away in Gonzalez.
Duplessis became suspicious when, the day after the election, Rogers stopped responding to his messages altogether. He waited for a month before contacting Catfish.
"She told me, 'Vote your conscious or don't vote at all'. It's one of the things I respected about her," Duplessis recounted to Nev and Max.
Duplessis was just one of at least 338,000 Americans who were exposed to Russian-generated rally promotions through Facebook, though his experience was probably a bit more intimate than most others according to Columbia University political scientist Dr. Russell Decker.
Decker, who teaches a course on Post-Cold War Espionage, says it's unlikely that many Americans were "catfished" by the Russians. "Most likely, this was a rogue operative experimenting with the form. Developing one-on-one relationships isn't the most efficient method to influence an election, and efficiency is the Kremlin way."
In the time since the show was filmed, Duplessis has been staying busy to, as he says, distract himself from his broken heart. In addition to his full-time job as a janitor at a petrochemical plant, he is leading an LPEEW initiative to place historical markers at the sites of abandoned oil wells.
"I've got to make it up to my community."