4 Ways to Spot an Internet Bullshit Artist
I've long been fascinated with Internet fakers: the people who hang around forums and social media sites, vomiting lies out of every orifice like a drunken frat boy who's also possessed by a demon. A few now-defunct communities once cataloged these filthy, filthy liars, but apart from that, Internet fakers really don't get the attention they deserve. And that's weird, because over the years, I've noticed that they share a bunch of bizarre similarities. Like ...
They Often Aren't After Your Money
You've probably heard a lot about Nigerian princes and romance scammers, who for years now have been kindly separating naive computer users from their money. And you've probably also heard of "catfishing," where people pretend to be someone else for the purpose of a fake online relationship, which honestly is almost as bad as a fish pretending to be a cat.
Catfishers and Nigerian princes are bad people, it's true, but at least these scammers are clearly after something: your lonely aunt's money, maybe, or a sexy nude chat session with your unsuspecting grandpa. Other fakers on the Internet have much murkier motives. For a start, there are sickness fakers, people who join online communities devoted to chronic illnesses and chime in with stories of their own fictional sufferings. These fakers can go to extremes: in 2012, a college student admitted she'd pretended to be a man whose son was suffering from kidney cancer, a scam she'd been running for 11 years. Cancer fakers in particular are so widespread on the Internet that one woman who started a cancer blog was befriended by three unconnected women who all turned out to be pretending. Three.
At first glance, these fake-sick weirdos seem like the online version of people like this man, who claimed to have terminal cancer to get donation money. But here's the weird part: a lot of the fake-sick people online aren't after money. That college student with the nonexistent cancer-son? She did collect thousands of dollars in donations ... and they were all forwarded to a legitimate charity. Many other fakers, like the women who scammed the real cancer victim, never ask for money in the first place. On the surface, at least, these people don't seem to be gaining much at all.
This habit of faking illness for no apparent reason even has a name: Munchausen by Internet. It's thought to be a form of Munchausen Syndrome, a factitious disorder in which patients deceive doctors and loved ones by feigning symptoms of an illness. What exactly causes Munchausen Syndrome is still unknown, but we can all agree that, if nothing else, it allows a person to get all the attention and sympathy that comes with being sick, minus the sucky "being sick" part. Another thing is ...
They Don't Even Try to Make Their Lies Realistic
Personally, if I was going to lie on the Internet, I'd put some effort into it. If I wanted to pretend to be, say, a world-renowned expert in monkeys, I'd buy books on primatology and memorize monkey-related facts and make sure that all the pictures of me holding monkeys in my LinkedIn profile were Photoshopped just right. But apparently I'm in the minority, because most people who decide to start lying on the Internet just don't bother. Take military fakers: guys who pop up on social media claiming past or present military service that only ever happened in their head or on their screen during a particularly devoted Call of Duty session. You'd think they'd take the time to learn some basic military shit, like the thing about how if you're a man in the U.S. military, you usually have to shave your beard before you put on a uniform:
Military fakers also inevitably claim to be elite special forces, even though "claims to be elite special forces" is now listed absolutely everywhere as one of the most common warning signs of a fake, and if they really wanted to slip under the radar they'd be better off saying they were a cook. Hell, even if your lie about being a cook was exposed, people would probably at least give you credit for being original.
But choosing the extreme over the mundane is something that Internet fakers in general just can't resist. Sickness fakers, for example, might put a lot of work into memorizing symptoms, but they blow everything by having no sense of restraint. One fake Internet sick person wasn't content to remain a single mother suffering from leukemia: she also announced that she'd picked up a seizure disorder, peritonitis, and was losing body parts to a staph infection. A migraine sufferer soon started claiming to also be a hemophiliac who was defying his abusive parents by skateboarding to medical school every day, despite being 15 years old.
Why don't these people even try to keep their lies realistic? I think it's because, for the most part, they don't need to. Most of us don't want to believe that someone we trust is lying to us, so we'll give others the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't help that these people usually start their stories small and then ramp them up later, so by the time their victims do get suspicious about their Internet buddies coming down with cancer of the Ebola while tracking down terrorists during a secret mission in the jungles of Syria, they stay in denial because they don't want to believe they've been fooled.
They Latch On to Emotional Causes
A while back, I contacted some people on a forum about a guy who was pretending to be a wounded veteran whose son had died in combat. This guy, who I'll call Fakey McDouche, was using as proof the name of a young man who really had died at war, and was leveraging the dead guy's stolen identity as a way to gain Internet cred. He'd managed to get himself set up as a moderator on a popular conservative forum, and when me and some other people wrote to the forum administrator with proof of his bullshit, the admin agreed and banned him. Phew!
Except, almost immediately half the forum jumped in to defend Mr. McDouche, claiming that liberal outsiders had infiltrated the site and that we were picking on brave, wounded vets. The site admin repeatedly detailed the inconsistencies in Fakey's story, but many forum members stayed unconvinced. The argument raged for days.
"Ha ha, dumb conservatives!" you're saying. "Too brainwashed by their Fox Newses and their Rush Limbaughs to listen to the voice of reason!" Except then you look at cases like the left-wing blogger who posted fake threats on her own Facebook, or this waitress who claimed on a Facebook page that a family refused to tip her because she was a lesbian (credit card records later revealed they'd tipped generously). You can bet your last Obama bumper sticker that when doubts first came out about these women's stories, the liberal side of the Internet rose up in their defense, just like the conservatives did for Fakey McDouche. How dare anyone express suspicion about these people's stories? Are you suggesting that people who report hate crimes should not be trusted? Go back to Free Republic, you disgusting hater!
Now, think about it: there are many, many things you can lie about online. So why do so many people choose to lie about military service or about discrimination? Simple: because they realize that these topics come with a built-in Internet army that will fight on their behalf. Say I was entrenched in my lie about being a monkey expert, and someone pointed out that all the pictures I'd put up on Facebook of myself pondering monkeys in the field actually came from monkey stock photo websites. Chances are, nobody but my closest friends would bother defending me. Unlike monkeys, though, hate crimes and military action are topics that demand passionate keyboard-punching. And while this argument is raging, the faker can sit back with arms crossed, happy because they got exactly what they wanted: a shitload of attention.
Of course, at some point most people usually put aside their differences long enough to admit someone's a fake. But even that doesn't always work, because ...
Most of Them Never, Ever Stop
Eventually, most Internet fakers do get punched in the face with the fist of truth. They make up one too many stories about getting sick after wandering into a CDC lab and tripping over the smallpox display. An acquaintance checks out some Navy SEAL websites and finds out they don't even have one confirmed kill, let alone 300. They fake their own dramatic death and someone notices there's no record anywhere in Colorado of a guy dying in his lover's arms after pulling that last child from the burning orphanage. It's all over, right?
Nope. Sure, there are some people who make up a dumb lie once or twice in youthful error, and then move on. But many Internet fakers simply see exposure as a chance to move on to another part of the Internet and start again.
For example, take Jenna St. James, who carried on a two-year romantic relationship with a woman based entirely around a man who didn't exist. Jenna pretended to be a fireman with PTSD from 9/11 (there's that emotional subject!) who "died" of liver cancer when the other woman demanded to finally meet him. Since then, at least five other women have come forward claiming to also have been scammed by Jenna, going all the way back to the 1980s (she used letter correspondence before the Internet made things easier).
Then there's Andrew Blake. Back in the early 2000s, Andrew allegedly scammed Lord of the Rings fans and actors by "organizing" a fake charity that he failed to actually organize (several actors flew in from New Zealand and were forced to sleep on his couch). One woman even wrote a book about it, and Andrew's Internet-faker days were over ... until he showed up a few years later in Harry Potter fandom, sporting a suspicious Irish accent and claiming a traumatic past connected to the IRA (there's that emotional subject again!). Outed by Potter fans, Andrew emerged in the fan community for the TV show Supernatural, where I'm sure he'll do fine because there is absolutely no craziness associated with any of the fans of that show.
Andrew's story attracted a lot of attention because of his, uh, unusual claims (at one point, he claimed to be channeling Hobbits on the astral plane), but you can be sure that quieter versions of Andrew are hiding all over the Internet, looking for the next group of trusting people to welcome their embellished tales with open arms.
Because that's another thing: Internet fakers might hurt people, but they usually start by offering their victims something they want, whether it's emotional support, erotic Harry Potter fanfiction, validation of political viewpoints, or just plain friendship. And there will never be any shortage of people wanting that.
C. Coville is a world-renowned monkey specialist who can be found on Twitter here and on Tumblr here.
For more from C. Coville, check out 5 Hated Groups That Are Going Out of Their Way to Be Awesome and 5 Oddly Specific Lies We Believe About Foreigners.
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