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The Circle: What if you’re not who you say you are on TV?

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Have we come full Circle online?

We live in an age where the human compulsion to lie, cheat and fantasise is indulged to the extent that online hoaxers are a common part of daily life. Channel 4’s latest reality show, The Circle exploits this by asking contestants to compete for a cash prize using social media only.

But is the show an insightful social commentary on our modern propensity to pretend? Or are the contestants who are telling the biggest whoppers breaking the law?

The controversy on the show centres around the contestant Jennifer (is that even her real name?) who has presented herself as one of the most respected members of our society – an oncologist.

In the real world (outside of the bubble of a reality TV programme) online lies have real consequences. It’s not unlawful to lie, on its own, but it’s very difficult to live an online lie without breaching one law or another.

We have acted for clients impersonated on Twitter and Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, Tinder and Grindr. We have helped a Scandinavian businessman impersonated by a fraudster seeking investments and a football executive apparently seeking deals on LinkedIn.

The most incredible of all was an impersonator acting out a fantasy life by impersonating a well-known person on Facebook. Not only that, the impersonator had hacked the individual’s email accounts and had set up a network of fake profiles on Facebook in order to impersonate friends and family.

The email hacking was the most serious offence but, in living her online lie, she had breached so many of the victim’s legal rights including privacy (revealing private information on the Facebook page) and copyright (uploading photos stolen from the email account)

Jennifer’s lie is aimed at winning her the £50,000 prize money, at the expense of the other contestants of course. Had she told this lie for similar purposes outside the confines of a television format then she would be at serious risk of committing a criminal offence. The Fraud Act 2006 makes it a criminal offence to dishonestly make a false representation with the intention of making a financial gain for yourself or causing someone a financial loss.

But is she protected by the TV bubble? The answer is – probably. It depends on how Channel 4 and the production company in charge of the show have set out the rules and contractual obligations to the contestants. It would seem that “anything goes” in the show and, if the other contestants are on notice that any of their fellow contestants may lie to get their hands on the prize, then they would find it difficult to argue legitimately that they have been defrauded.

That is not to say that television show contestants are immune from the law. Where acts go beyond what can be policed by television producers, such as the various police investigations into fracas and racism on Big Brother, then the law can intervene. On this occasion, though, I doubt it. As Jennifer predicts, the most that will likely happen, is that she gets “lambasted”. A social media trolling as a result of social media cheating. You could say we’ve come full Circle: a very modern tale.

A version of this article appeared in The Times on 27/9/18.