Monday, February 24, 2014

Anatomy of an Internet Hoax

Someone posted a video on Facebook a month or so ago that I ended up watching early one Sunday morning. It was a progression of Tweets from a girl in Canada who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and died. I went to the girl's Twitter page and read through all of them...and, for just a minute, I fell for it.



I wanted to read more about this girl. A little time had passed since her supposed death, so surely there would be some details about this "Amanda" person in Ottawa, right? She worked for the government, her video had gone viral...by now, at least 100 people should have come forward to say they'd worked with her, gone to school with her, gone on a date with her and never called again...

Nope. Nothing.

Immediately I knew it was a hoax. I went back to her profile, looked through her Tweets, noted the complete absence of any personal communication with anyone she might know face to face, and dismissed it immediately.

Then a week or so ago, I read something about Munchausen Syndrome and immediately thought of online pranksters who pretend they have some fatal disease (usually cancer) to get attention. My next thought was of Amanda on Twitter...so I went in search of more information. Another month had passed, so SURELY by now someone had seen the viral video of the Tweets (which now has 950,000 views) and come forward to say, "Hey, that's Amanda So-and-So."

Still nothing. However, a very enterprising journalist named Jennifer Mendelsohn went to some major investigative work to determine whether Amanda was a real person or not. If you read through her article, you'll find that 1) nobody died of cancer in Ottawa on that date; 2) doctors can easily poke holes in her claims of a three-day brain cancer diagnosis, and 3) of all of her followers who responded to Mendelsohn's e-mails, not a single one had ever met Amanda in person.

Mendelsohn questions whether someone with Manchausen by Internet (yes, that IS a thing!) would be so low-key about it. My answer is, YES. In the MySpace heyday, I was very active in the blogging community, which sounds geeky but we were a large group of avid readers. Many of us averaged daily views of our blog in the thousands.

There were at least two separate instances I knew of where someone lied about major life events to get attention. One was a woman going by the name of "Babe," who duped most of us into believing she'd come home from work to find her girlfriend dead. Later, she faked her own death in a motorcycle accident--a fact her "new girlfriend" told us by logging into her account to say she was dead. The second time was when a couple of guys convinced everyone one of them was dying of cancer. Turned out, they weren't even guys

Why do these people do it? I'm no psychotherapist, but I think we all have known people who feign illness for attention. They don't have to have millions of followers on an online forum. It could just be the people they work with--six or seven people. I once worked with a woman who had 12 separate conditions she mentioned at one time or another. She just wanted attention. I read somewhere once that sometimes these people grew up with a sick sibling and learned that was how you get attention. They spend their lives trying to make up for the attention Mom and Dad never gave them.

The practice is so rampant on social media, someone has created a Ripoff Report for a woman who has made a longtime habit of pretending to be something she isn't online. Cancer seems to be a popular fake diagnosis with these people.

Is Amanda fake? I not only think so--I'm 99 percent certain of it. But if you feel you can get inspiration from reading her Tweets, who cares? She doesn't want anything but attention. I am still curious where she got her profile picture, though. One would think at some point, someone would at least recognize that.

24 comments:

  1. It's very sad. It ruins it for those true stories out there. We have to be so careful whom to trust.

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  2. I think for most of us, we can't imagine a reality where someone would spend that much time pretending to be someone with cancer without actually scamming people out of money. Honestly, this sort of thing really doesn't hurt anyone. If anything, it perhaps inspired people and made them think. It brought out their compassion. But, yes, it is possible that over time many of us will become skeptical if we see this enough. "Scam" wasn't my immediate thought when I saw the video. I actually bought into all of it until I started reading her Tweets and there was something very one-sided about her page.

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  3. I remember at least one of the hoaxes from MySpace. There have been a couple I've heard of since in the beauty blogging world, a guy who was pretending to be a young girl and a woman who fleeced all her customers then pretended to die or something equally ridiculous.

    Having had personal experience with someone who lied through her teeth to everyone she knew for at least 2 years (the worst of it was when she pretended her mother had died when she was alive and well) I know that to these damaged individuals, attention is like air and there are no limits to the depths to which they'll stoop. It's sad.

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  4. Just Me Leah--and lying goes beyond being sick. I've known a couple of compulsive liars in my life that would tell any story if it would get attention. After a certain number of stories, you start to figure out the person isn't truthful. They really can't help it...it's an illness.

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  5. I will never understand this behavior or mental condition or whatever it is. And I'm glad, because it means I don't suffer from it.

    I agree with you that if someone gets inspiration from something online, regardless of the source, then good for them. I mean, except in the cases where money changes hands and actual fraud crimes are committed, this doesn't *really* hurt anyone, does it?

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  6. I guess we all have our vices, Karen. For me it's chocolate and Mexican food. For some people, it's alcohol. For others, it's faking a fatal disease and having people they'll never meet type warm thoughts to you on Twitter. What's weird is that this "Amanda" started this account in 2009 and kept it up all that time... That's a lot of dedication.

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  7. I've never understood why people think this is fun or entertaining. Sad, really. What are they missing in their lives that they need to go to these extents?

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  8. I agree, S.P. It's really quite sad...but I guess it's an inevitable part of worldwide connectivity.

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  9. dang, that's sick that people would do that?? newest follower, hi!!!

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  10. It's very sad and twisted that people do these things. Out of sympathy I would easily fall for something like this, so thank you for bringing it to our attention. I know of a blogger who is so troubled that she faked her own death. I think it's a rotten thing to do, because it caused others much grief. These people need some serious psychiatric intervention.

    Be well, Stephanie.
    xoRobyn

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  11. @Tammy Theriault: Hi! Nice to meet you!

    @Rawknrobyn: I think some of these stories can be traced back to the same people. They fake their deaths/fatal illnesses over and over and over.

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  12. I've encountered a few fakes over time. One blogging fake we were able to figure out because of pictures she had posted that were not real. It's natural to care about people who hit hard times - it's terrible that some people create this just for attention. But I imagine the type of person who would do something like this probably hasn't had the best life.

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  13. I think you're right. I often wonder where they get these pictures. You'd think someone would recognize them...the picture of this Amanda woman has to be a real person. It's gone viral--surely someone should have matched it to someone by now...

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  14. I'm not as generous as you. To me, faking an illness like cancer trivializes the horror real human beings are suffering. And that's cruel.

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  15. Hi Stephanie .. I have absolutely no time for things like that .. thank goodness my attention level span is very limited for social media.

    Very sad people feel they need others .. we do, but at a cognitive and fair level ..

    Cheers Hilary

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  16. @Elizabeth: That is one thing I don't like. Also, I hate that now those who are truly suffering from cancer and other illnesses are met with skepticism because of things like this.

    @Hilary: I think perhaps we're all wanting to reach out to others and help somehow. We know the same thing could happen to us and we would want that same level of compassion. It's sad that some have so little going on in their lives, they have to create fake profiles and pretend to be someone they aren't to find...whatever it is they're seeking.

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  17. It's sad to think about people who struggle with things like this. I imagine it's something deep seated that should be addressed. Social media just makes it all easier, doesn't it?

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  18. The internet has certainly extended the reach of these types of things, Karen! At one time, the people I knew who did things like this only spoke to maybe 20 or so people in a given day normally. Now, one inaccurate message can spread to thousands of people with just a click!

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  19. Well, I guess if you just look at it as fiction, and enjoy it for the story, then there IS something of value there. The issue is, of course, when people pretend it's NOT fiction.

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  20. LOL. I guess they just haven't figured out they could make money by turning these "fictions" into books. ;)

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  21. I think that's why it's interesting to many of us, Liz and Crystal. We like the story. We hope it has a happy ending but too often it doesn't.

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  22. It's so hard to trust people you meet or interact with on the internet, for exactly this reason. :(

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  23. These days, when I come across tweets and such like that, I hesitate to cluck, particularly if it's something I see on Facebook. Hard to say why people would do stuff like that.

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  24. It's very sad that some people would go to those extremes. I do think it's good to share legitimate health problems, as it might help someone in a similar situation. Hopefully, the fraudulent cases won't cause others to question the credibility of the honest bloggers.

    Julie

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