Thursday, 19 January 2012

When your "online" friends turn out to be fictitious

A while ago I wrote about the friendships people form on the internet and whether if something happened to one of them, their virtual friends might ever get to find out or whether they would remain oblivious.

But there is another element to internet friendship, which is the fact that you can never really be sure that someone is who they say they are online. After all, it’s easy enough to create an account on your website of choice, with an email set up from any provider, invent a life and a set of circumstances of your choosing and set out to befriend the people you want to befriend.

In principle I suppose there’s nothing wrong with the idea of inventing a persona to be the person you wanted to be, maybe to gain acceptance if one doesn’t have that in real life. A better job, a couple of kids, a rich partner, all things which some people might aspire to but which they perhaps might not have, and so inventing them somehow gives them a sense of fulfilment, or acceptance, even if it’s only on a superficial level. But in truth it can only ever be superficial because you cannot form genuine connections which are based on fiction, and inventing a persona is essentially creating a fictional character. And while I said in principle it isn’t wrong, in truth it’s based on deception.

But there is a far more sinister element to creating an online persona, and that is the type of online persona that is seemingly created in order to prey on other peoples’ sympathies, and who often use their vulnerability to achieve their goal, i.e. attention, and in some instances even money.

These people usually target people who are in specific categories, such as parents who have lost a child, or people who have serious illnesses, and they create their persona to fit with those things so their intended victims can often relate to what they are going through, and will give them the attention they obviously crave.

It is a phenomenon I have seen referred to as Munchausen by internet, and which is common on every web forum I have ever been on.

Usually the types of scenarios people invent are so emotive as to almost make them impossible to challenge. I have known posters invent the death of a child, or the death of twins following premature birth, and I have known of at least three who have killed off their persona through suicide.

And when feelings run high and empathy is strong, it takes the most unfeeling person (in the eyes of others) to suggest that someone might have fabricated the death of their own child, something which is undoubtedly any parent’s worst nightmare, and it’s even harder to claim that someone has faked their own death because, well, they’re dead, so there is no-one left to challenge apart from the fictitious family who, after they have posted the death announcement, might never come back.

But often once one person raises their suspicions there are usually others that were suspicious too but didn’t have the courage to speak out for fear of either being wrong, or lynched by the virtual masses.

But these instances are real and there are really people out there who make up whole lives, seemingly oblivious to the fact that when they die, or when they announce the death of a child, they are hurting their greatest supporters. I imagine any mother who has lost a child knows what someone is feeling when that happens to them, and so will empathize and no doubt have memories of their own situation. Or someone who considers an online person to be a close friend will grieve their loss if they have died, oblivious to the fact that the person has probably moved on elsewhere to create a new character and a new life, with a new set of victims.

I am sure that there are many people out there who will say that someone who goes to these lengths must be seriously mentally ill, and probably deserving of our sympathy on some level. But while I am in no doubt that someone who does this must have serious mental issues, and is probably even in need of professional help, I think the fact that their actions are so calculated and leave so many victims behind, both at the time and once they have been revealed to be fakes, that I find it impossible to have any sympathy for them.


  1. Well said; I have come across a few people fitting your descriptions above, and I absolutely cannot find it in my heart to be sympathetic to their 'plight'. As you say, it's all so cold and calculated, that no amount of mental illness excuses it (IMO).

    And what's worse is that it makes people suspicious of folk genuinely going through those kinds of traumas...which means that very often they will not get the support they need.

    So yes, selfish behaviour all-round. :-(

  2. Very good post. It is shocking to read of these stories, and we would all be well advised to remember that we do not actually know the person on the other side of the screen.

    It makes me sad and angry, as I have met some fantastic friends online, and this kind of thing makes one less trusting and open.

  3. I think if you are a regular on a forum it pays to be cynical. Yes you can be accused of being hardhearted and I regret to say that I almost never click on a sob story on Mumsnet now unless the user name is very familiar to me, because I just don't want to get sucked into a drama that may not be real. However it's not just trolls who do this, regular posters also exaggerate their own plight to gain attention.

    I think that each of us is a member of a forum for a reason, whether it be for social purposes, for a little support, for entertainment or to share knowledge and experiences. But some are on there for instant fixes of attention. It's a huge ego boost to have strangers all talking about you and that's just as addictive as anything else.

    It is sad, but as you say, these people are playing with the emotions of other vulnerable people and may even prevent a genuine person from accessing help. So sympathies can only stretch so far.