“What is life without trust?” he muses in his final blog post. He talks a lot about these intangible things we need in life recently. He has done ever since he found out about the cancer. He tells us how he could always trust his body to do what he wants, how he feels betrayed by it now as it rots from the inside out. He tells us how much we all mean to him, how he’s trusted us to keep him strong through the illness, how much all our cards and gifts have meant. He types one final word, and is gone…
A little melodramatic, yes. A little derivative, of course. A load of bullshit, yes it is. What you’ve seen above is a prime example of Munchausen By Internet. Most people are already aware of Munchausen Syndrome in real life, the strange condition that causes people to fake or induce an illness or injury in themselves in order to gain a medical professionals attention. Related to that is Munchausen By Proxy, where the sufferer induces an illness or injury in a weaker third party (usually a child or other dependent) for the same reasons, and it is that particular form that is usually seen on television or in films making it the most well known. Munchausen By Internet is similar in the actions of the sufferer, but rather than seeking attention from a medical professional the sufferer aims at online communities. Like the fictional Baron who the disorder is named after, Munchausen sufferers tell vivid and fantastic tales of woe to anyone who will listen and, on the internet, the entire world can be your audience with only one click. Just like people who exhibit the symptoms of Munchausen in real life, those who practice this disorder over the internet will tell detailed tales of their descent (or that of someone close to them) into illness. They will have detailed information on the symptoms they say they’re suffering from (something that people could only get from medical journals and encyclopedias before but now is available via a simple web search) and give enough of that detail in their postings that most people will believe them.
It starts innocently enough, as someone new joins a community and starts to make friends and you may meet them by yourself or through another common friend. They become popular quickly, seeming in hindsight to have catered their personalities to suit those of the group they’ve chosen to infiltrate. They may even have a whole supporting cast of characters in their life – family and friends that they talk about on their posts – and some of these people may already be online (the most advanced forms of these create several personalities, build friendships and relationships between them and focus on whichever turns out to be the most popular one while keeping the others going) or may claim to have met each other in real life since becoming friends online or talk every night on the phone. They gain peoples trust, become part of their lives, and become cared about. Sometimes it can be years before the trouble begins.
In most cases it starts slowly with the person posting about a strange recurring pain they’ve been having, and they eventually and unwillingly cave to peer pressure from their online friends to go see a doctor. They’ll anxiously await test results, with their friends so drawn into the drama that they may as well be waiting for their own results. The test results come back and the charade is in full swing as the person tells everyone the terrible news about how long they have left to live. They’ll be scared, but put on a brave face. Sometimes their bravery will even be inspiring to others. They’ll talk openly about their fears, sharing secrets with other people, slowly coming to accept their illness, fighting the valiant fight (some have had cancer go into remission then repeatedly return) but ultimately losing. The death is a simple affair. The blog goes quiet for a short time then a relative comes on and posts about the death just to inform the friends of the person. Sometimes one of their supporting cast will announce it to others as they’ve found out from visiting/calling their friend.
Case Study 1 – The Knitting Monkey
Gigi Silva was part of an online knitting community under the name MommaMonkey and definitely not the sort of person you’d expect to pull this sort of trick. She’d been a helpful member for years, gained many friends and shared thousands of her knitting patterns online.
When her death was announced at the end of January 2008, as a result of complications arising from Lupus, the people who knew her were distraught. Gigi’s husband started posting in her account, thanking everyone for their kind words about his late wife and saying her designs were now for sale with all the proceeds going to Lupus charities. People held knitting events in her honour using her patterns that they’d bought. This went on for almost a year until someone got suspicious.
An active Twitter account was found that had used the same e-mail address as Gigi’s to sign up with. The Twitter user had a husband and children with the same names as Gigi had as well as the same interests. When the user started talking about her tattoos and posted pictures of them, people knew for sure. At some point Gigi, a beloved member of the boards had decided to fake her death so that her patterns would sell more. To this day no further explanation has been forthcoming.
Case Study 2 – The Curious Case Of Kaycee Nicole
Kaycee Nicole, the author of the Living Colours blog, was a 19 year old girl from Kansas who had been suffering from a string of health problems including seizures, blood clots, ruptured veins and extremely high fever. When she died in May 2001 from Leukemia the hundreds of people who read her page grieved for her. They had shared her high moments and been there for her in her pain, many being inspired to stay upbeat while fighting their own health problems. Many had personal contact with her, e-mailing each other regularly and sending her get well gifts. Some of them even spoke to her regularly on the telephone.
When Kaycee’s mother started her own blog as a tribute to her daughter many of Kaycee’s old readers moved there, regularly reading and reminiscing about her. It soon became clear that something was wrong though. Many of Kaycee’s friends wanted to pay their respects to her in real life yet her mother wouldn’t provide details of when the funeral would be or even an address to send flowers to. People who spoke to Debbie on the telephone remarked how similar she sounded to her daughter and pretty soon people were wondering if the girl had ever even existed.
People started going through her posts looking for clues and noticed how fond this 19 year old blonde girl was of including lyrics from the 60s and 70s in her posts. The posts that had previously been regarded as particularly well written suddenly seemed to have been written by someone older than 19. With suspicions raised others started sleuthing in real life and found that not only could no obituary be found for Kaycee Nicole, but no-one of that name could be found living in Kansas. The final nail in Kaycee’s coffin came when the photo of herself that she put online was found to be a photo of a local basketball star who had no idea her image had been taken. Finally confronted with all the evidence, Debbie admitted that everything written was by her, as were all communications with people, in order to gain sympathy and affection, and that she’d killed “Kaycee” off so that people could start to know the real her.
Case Study 3 – You Think You Know Me?
The first reported case of a faked death on the internet was M Otis Beard (quite a well known name on the web these days) and actually has nothing to do with Munchausens. Otis perpetrated his fraud to teach people the lesson that they don’t know people online as well as they think they do. His return from the dead was joyful, but only for him, as he explained how he’d fooled everyone and mocked them for mourning someone they never really knew.
I’ve said a lot of things in this post and given examples of, and quotes from, different people who have willingly and, in some cases at least, maliciously perpetrated these kinds of frauds on people they claim are their friends. It’s a lot to take in, even if you are familiar with these sort of people and their activities. Who can you trust? Should you shun everyone to be on the safe side, or distrust anyone who gets ill? Do you question the death of a friend or everyone who talks about a personal tragedy or drama? The answer of course is a resounding no. All I warn is that you be cautious and not take everything at face value because a small minority of people will try to take advantage of you. For the most part the people you have interactions with and start to care about online are exactly what they claim to be and to mistrust everyone would stop you from having some wonderful friends. Don’t stop giving people the benefit of the doubt unless they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can’t be trusted. After all, what is life without trust?