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Column: Only a Click Away From the World of Make-Believe

I am still not entirely coherent after reading Deadspin’s story that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s cancer-stricken girlfriend was a hoax.

And I had no idea who any of these people were in the first place.

If you have not yet, read this story. Then, if you are at all like me, collapse to your knees on the floor, shouting, “Is everything a lie?” Then read it again. Then pay it forward, forcing awareness of it on everyone you know, pausing occasionally to shake your head and twitch slightly.

In brief, for those few not riveted by this story: The website Deadspin posted an exposé Wednesday that the football player’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, whose tragic death from cancer had been credited with inspiring dramatic acts of charity and dramatic feats of football, did not, strictly speaking, exist. Her Twitter profile did, but it was apparently the work of an aspiring musician named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

Yet no one ever checked. Perhaps not even Te’o. Kekua became a part of the Mormon athlete’s inspiring story at news conferences, in tweets and in a lengthy Sports Illustrated profile. Thousands of dollars were donated to charity after her “death.” We have not seen this much grief over a fictional person since the passing of Little Nell.

Was this a knowing hoax? Or was this simply a Cyrano de Bergerac-style stunt that went horribly, horribly awry? As an avid reader of fiction, I like caring about people whom I have never met, who do not exist and who have never existed. But I like knowing that it is fiction.

I don’t know what to believe any more. If you can’t trust people on the Internet who say they are dying of cancer and car accidents and seldom post new pictures, whom can you trust?

In light of the story, I propose a new rule for the Internet, the Lennay Kekua Memorial Rule: The probability that an Internet Person You Have Never Met is real decreases in direct proportion as the number of highly dramatic life incidents that person suffers increases.

Example: Jenna4949 falls off her bicycle? Probably real.

But if, say, Jenna4949 has rare brittleness disease that no one else on Earth has and, after falling off her bicycle one day, seven rabid badgers attacked her and then she realized that her grandfather has been abusing her dying malamute for years? Far less likely.

Our first impulse is compassion, not skepticism. Maybe Jenna4949 just has really rotten luck. Which is how a Lennay Kekua can inspire thousands of dollars in donations to charity.

“In fairness,” as the writer Michael Cohen quipped on Twitter, “attending Notre Dame and placing unquestioned faith in beings you’ve never actually met ... is part of the admissions process.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, I guess. Up to a point. The capacity for faith in the unseen or in the seen-briefly-through-a-Twitter-avatar is a standard human characteristic. I always assume that the scantily clad individuals who tweet me about their PICS COOL PICS EXCITING PICS are real people who do not place a high premium on grammar and have a rare form of Tourette’s in which they intersperse their conversations with words such as “Viagra” and “Cialis click here!” But now I’m having second thoughts.

Last week was a tough one for fictional stories that inspire us to feats of compassion. Lance Armstrong’s admission of doping to Oprah Winfrey put the nail in the coffin of the brief vogue for yellow bracelets.

So much for the inspiring lie. The shelf of hollow tales of heroism that proved inspiring is precariously full. Gotham is getting the heroes it deserves, and there is no Batman to keep us from looking under the lid.

Perhaps it is time we return to the classic rule: Pics, or it didn’t happen.

But even then, I’m not so sure. It starts to get awfully Descartes awfully fast. Is anyone on the Internet who he says he is? Am I who I say I am? Is anything real? Am I? Cogito? Sum? Manti? Deadspin?

I need to lie down.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.