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In a prior blog post, I outlined a sequence of events that I seem to occur in most of the incidents of online identity deception. The sequence I outlined was:

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s narrative takes the form of “this is the trial I face” —> look at how I bravely deal with/overcome it.
  3. The false persona begins  intense one on one correspondence offline with one or more group members
  4. The false persona makes some kind of critical error in the narrative that becomes the tipping point between the false persona’s image as a sympathetic figure and the revelation that the false persona is an imposter.

Writing about Munchausen by Internet, Feldman (2000) listed 10 clues to aid in the detection of Factitious Internet claims[i] I have seen all of these behaviors manifested in the various online identity hoaxes I have read. Behaviors on that like include: near fatal medical crises followed by seemingly miraculous recoveries; a continuous string of dramatic events, resisting phone or richer forms of communication media and confining communication to text on the screen (p. 670).

I realized shortly after making that post, that there was a fifth point I should have added: the false persona will usually make a public statement where they confirm the deception and offer an explanation. Depending on the motivation of the deception it will either be a woeful mea culpa[ii] or they will taunt the group for being so gullible (see Feldman, 2000; Joinson and Dietz-Uhler, 2002; prince-koyang, 2012). Again, Feldman compiled a list of common reactions of both the deceptive individual as well as group members after the deception has been discovered (p. 671).

12 years after Feldman, the number of online communities has grown explosively and with it the number of incidents of identity deception hoaxes.[iii]  Feldman wrote specifically about deception within medical support group communities, hence, his focus on Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy. However, based on my anecdotal observations I have reason to believe that the behaviors he outlined are applicable across the spectrum of online identity hoaxes whether they occur within blogs, social network sites, or message boards. Feldman concludes by saying that medical personnel should counsel patients who use the Internet for support and information to use caution when connecting to people online. If my belief that these behaviors extend outside the healthcare realm is accurate, than anyone who has oversight of venues that support the development of an online community should be able to recognize these behaviors so they can intervene before the confidence of community members is damaged by the betrayal of a false persona walking amongst them.

References

Feldman, M. D. (2000). Munchausen by internet: Detecting factitious illness and crisis on the internet. Southern Medical Journal, 93(7), 669.

Joinson, A. N., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2002). Explanations for the perpetration of and reactions to deception in a virtual community. Social Science Computer Review, 20(3), 275.

prince-koyang. (2012, June 4). 왕자고양이//floating through. Message posted to http://prince-koyangi.tumblr.com/


Endnotes

[i] Both Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy involve an individual who is feigning or inducing illness, usually life threatening conditions. In Factitious Disorder the person is putting themselves forward as the ill individual. By comparison, in cases of Munchausen by Proxy the primary communicator puts themselves forth as a parent or caretaker of a critically ill individual. See Feldman, 2000 for some specific examples of this phenomenon.

[ii] As an example of the type of apologetic post I am referring to. This was posted BY D.F. after it became apparent that he had created the false persona of Nowheremom. Part of the deception included D.F. posing as Nowheremom’s fiancée.

Throughout November and December 1999, I engaged in a banter with this persona. At that time, I wanted mainly to bring some humour and entertainment to the forums. People were indeed entertained during those two months and some called it a soap opera. As time went by, NOWHEREMOM started to take an air of reality even to me. Once again, it never was my intention to hurt anyone. I simply had not realized how much people and even myself had become attached to her. In early January 2000, after Ornery mentioned the word “marriage”, one day I simply panicked and in that instant, my mind was clouded enough that, instead of simply revealing that it was a hoax, I killed her. I had never expected the grief that overcame this community. It even overcame me and I sobbed for three days as if she had been real. I came to the conclusion that to reveal the hoax would hurt too many innocent people and I was hoping that the whole thing would simply fade away. It was not meant to be. In July 2000, a member named vapor uncovered evidence of the hoax and revealed it to a few people. Instead of coming clean, still believing that the hurt to our community would be too great, I denied the whole thing. Vapor was vilified and ostracized for this. To him, I can only offer my sincere apology for I am truly sorry for the way he was treated on this matter. I lied to some people closest and dearest to me because I thought that, in doing so, I was protecting them from becoming accomplices in my cover-up. Unfortunately, many came to my defense in a spirited fashion and ended up unknowingly defending a lie. The matter never rested and many of my friends and acquaintances ended up being divided into two clans. In particular, I know some outside individuals who would be pleased to no end watching the fabric of this community unravel over this. The well-being of this community is paramount in my book for I do consider you my Internet family It was simply a hoax which I thought was harmless and which got out of hand when I panicked 16 months ago. I sincerely apologize to everybody involved or hurt by this matter.

[iii] As I have mentioned in prior posts, I draw a clear distinction between fraud, where a deceptive person perpetrates the fraud specifically for financial gain, and an identity hoax where the perpetrator puts forth a false persona for reasons other than fraud. In the case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, Debbie Swenson, the deceiver, donated any money she was given to legitimate cancer charities.

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I stumbled on this via on of the Twitter feeds I follow (Barry Wellman or danah boyd maybe?) and found it an amusing trip in a time machine.

January, 1983, Time Magazine declared that the personal computer was Time’s Machine of the Year for 1982 (beating out, among others, Steve Jobs). They stated that 4 million Americans were online, which was about 1.7% of the population. By 1995, the year of this PSA, Internet adoption was still only 14% (The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Internet Adoption 1995-2012). Rereading the articles from that 1983  issue of Time,  it showed that the landscape of computer users was a place that was predominantly white, male, economically advantaged and technologically elite[i]. The majority of people they spoke with saw computers as becoming as ubiquitous any other households appliance but it doesn’t seem that they saw it as a replacement for their media sources such the radio, TV, etc.

By 1995, a personal computer was still primarily an information tool, an electronic manifestation on Vannevar Bush’s memex; a replacement for the family typewriter; and a novel (and economical) way to instantaneously communicate asynchronously across town or across the globe.  However,  the script for this PSA projected that by the time these 10 year olds were in college (2003-2004ish) the Internet would be the TV, phone, shopping mall and workplace.

I see this as bolstering Tim Berners-Lee’s expressed opinion that the term Web 2.0 was jargon and that the whole purpose of the World Wide Web[ii] from the beginning was to be a collaborative space that facilitated human interconnectivity.   In 2005, he said about blogging (perhaps the poster child of Web 2.0), “Every person who used the web had the ability to write something. It was very easy to make a new web page and comment on what somebody else had written, which is very much what blogging is about”. That people saw the Internet as place to connect socially, professionally and commercially would have been no surprise to Berners-Lee.

I got online back in 1991 and I recall that my social circle was amused that my sister and I (she had gotten on the Internet about 4-6 months before me) had home computers. The most common question I got was, “what do you do with it?” Email and productivity software was common in the workplace and that was how I primarily used it at home: sending email to one of the few people I knew online, following a few Usenet groups, writing, doing some work from home.

At the time this time this PSA was made, I think I had already moved from CompuServe to AOL (or was about to)[iii]. Amazon.com came online in 1995 but was still just a book seller. Classmates.com also came online that year (which I would cite as being *the* FaceBook). Sixdegrees.com, which I would peg as the first social networking site most of us today  would recognize as such, would launch the following year, 1996, but sputter out before the turn of the century. YouTube was still a decade away as was Facebook (and guess who was a 5th grader back in 1995?).

However, as prescient as the writer of this PSA was (the YouTube description give the name Cindy Gaffney), the Internet was still seen as a tool, a service provider that built on existing existing communication tools. However the fruits of these predictions were there but in their infancy.

  • There were rudimentary phone services (I can’t remember the name but I remember reading about it when I bought a modem, I’m sure it was expensive, complicated to implement and that the quality was poor);
  • There was online retail. Amazon’s 1995 start date was quickly followed up by EBay in 1996.
  • There were brief animations on the Internet. I can’t remember the exact year but I think the Hamster Dance and the Dancing Baby came out around 1997ish. It took a critical mass of Broadband users to make high quality videos (and by extension Internet television) viable[iv].
  • As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I got a computer was so that I could work on extra projects at home. I didn’t have the authorization to upload material directly onto the organization’s server but I could work, save it to a floppy disc and bring it to work with me. The introduction of laptops increased this activity.

The function not explicitly predicted in the video is the Internet as a virtual agora and major role it’s played in the maintenance of social network ties: blogging and social networks sites.

The action of blogging is older than the term, that should come as no surprise to anyone reading this. I remember that some of the earliest personal sites on the WWW were crude versions of what most of us would call a blog: updates on a person’s activity, his (or less commonly her) thoughts and ideas. Some may have had pictures. I’m not sure that anyone realized how much so many of us had to say. In addition,blogging has served the very important function of providing a focal point for societal subgroups and outliers to coalesce around and form their own communities.

While you can build a case for predicting using the Internet for a telephone as a tool for maintaining social network ties, social networking sites have taken it far beyond that. It’s more than being able to shoot an email to a good friend after you’ve moved out of the neighborhood. You can still maintain a level of involvement in each others lives that wasn’t possible before through (a) more frequent incidental interaction, (b) exchanging pictures and videos of important private and public local events (sometimes within less than 5 minutes of an event occurring). So while they might live 1000 miles away, they can see video of their daughter’s 7th birthday party or and annual block party. You can also get to know their friends more easily because you are all sitting in a virtual room together conversing with your common acquaintance.

I’m not sure if anyone predicted this 15 years ago (If anyone reading this knows of anything like this please let me know, I would love to read it).
Finally a few other oldies but goodies:

This is an AOL commercial from about the same time as the PSA above (195)

This is a news segment about high tech gifts for Father’s Day. (I don’t know what I know this but the “Dad” in this piece is Mike Jerrick.)

The First World Wide Webpage

References

boyd, d. (2012). Danah boyd’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/zephoria

Bush, V. (1945, July). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly,

Friedrich, O. (2003, January 3). The computer moves in. Time Magazine,

Laningham, Scott (podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks).developerWorks interviews: Tim berners-lee (audio podcast)

Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2012). Internet adoption 1995-2011. (). Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Wellman, B. (2012). Barry wellman’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/barrywellman


[i] Although this wasn’t the Internet, I remember using WordPerfect in the late 80s and early 90s. Formatting involved remembering a function key combinations and being able to troubleshoot a document that didn’t look right involved interpreting the code associated with your document. And computers were not cheap. My first computer cost $2100 in 1991. As point of reference, my current desktop, which has the largest hard drive available when I bought it last year, ran about $1200 in 2011 (about $770 in 1991 dollars).

[ii] For context, when I refer to the Internet, I’m talking about the tool that grew out of Arpnet, into academic institutions at large and then to the general public: the interconnected computer networks that connects us through computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. There were several protocols by which a user could connect to the Internet, the most popular one is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is a term that a lot of laypeople use interchangeably with the Internet. While the Internet allowed us to connect, the World Wide Web enabled hypertext, one click links within a document that navigated the user to another document with related information, and multimedia. Web browsers, from Mosaic to Firefox to Chrome, provided a graphical user interface that which made the WWW more accessible to users who were not as technologically adept as the Internet pioneers. Going onto the Internet became less like reading a book on a screen and more like reading a colorful magazine that may also include sound and moving pictures.

 [iii] In the mid 90s, AOL put on a full court press to get subscribers. In order to used the service you needed the floppy disc (later a CD Rom) with the software to get you online and set up. This media was *everywhere* they would blanket mail neighborhoods, put the discs in magazines, I even remember my local library having a display with the dreaded discs (I suspect they made contributions to public libraries for that sort of access). New subscribers for 10 free hours of AOL access. Back then, they charged you by the hour for access. AOL didn’t go to a flat fee service until Oct 1996 (Wikipedia: AOL)

 [iv] I wonder about the role of Saturday Night Live and music videos in creating fertile ground for the “VidClip Culture” (I should probably add Sesame Street here since I’ve read in a couple of places that Sesame Street was one of the inspirations for the MTV style of short, fast bits of motion, sound, color and music). Do any media scholars have thoughts on this?

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