Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘identity deception’

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

(When I use the term trans*, I am specifically, not including transgender individuals under that label. I will be posting a page defining these concepts shortly)

Other hoaxes I’ve blogged about here came to light when the deception was dragged into the light, generally by someone who become suspicious of the deceptive narrative. In this case it seems the goal here was to only perpetrate this hoax long enough to rook enough people so the hoaxers could say, “Gotcha!” I find this hoax interesting because up to now, most of the incidents I’ve reviewed were either rooted in filling a psychological need and in the case of LonelyGirl15 was a marketing scheme. Depending on your POV, these hoaxers were calling attention to a perversion of the social justice movement by slacktivists or kids being mean and dismissive of groups that already feel marginalized.

Language is a social construct. We string together a group of sounds and point at an object called an automobile or a pair of glasses. Identity is also something of  a social construct. We identify with certain groups based upon thinks such our race or ethnic background, what we do for a living or what we do in our free time. Those labels we embrace became shorthand as societal (and often personal) stereotypes project meaning onto a person’s identity. Regardless of whether a part of our identity is innate or self selected, disabled versus jock, for example, elements of each of those labels we wear have a societally assigned meaning as well as a personal one.

For example, let’s say you injure yourself slipping on an icy sidewalk and a person runs up to you to offer assistance, if she says she is a doctor that will carry with it one meaning as opposed to if the person is wearing a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The doctor might be a dermatologist and the Dunkin’ Donuts employee a highly experienced volunteer EMT but their words and dress can affect the trust you have in them if they begin administering first aid to you.

The concept of Otherkin (and in fact the whole trans* movement) is possibly an example of the exponential effect CMCs have on the constitutive nature of language in the construction of identity. If someone posts to an Otherkin support site about coming to the realization that he or she is a cat in a human body, that statement will be supported and his or her identity as such will be reinforced.  If one is engaged in a role playing game or belongs to the furry subculture, it is understood that these are identities that serve as temporary wrappers for the person others know and interact with in the concrete world. Trans* people, though, are the mirror images of that social construct. The human being who passes through the concrete world is the wrapper and the trans* image (species, disability, race, etc.) is the true being, not a persona.

This raises some questions for me. Usually, both verbal and visual (clothing, the objects we carry with us, the vehicle we drive) cues construct our identity. In the context of Internet dating that identity is self created with text and photographs but if and when the people meet, that adds to the other person’s perception of an individual’s identity.

But, what does it mean if your self constructed identity is solely textual and at complete odds with all of the other visual and verbal cues and personal artifacts associated with a person. I might tell you I’m a wolf trapped in a human body but I am visibly human in appearance, action and public behavior. If the only place my true identity exists is within the bounded reality of the Internet and the only way I construct it is with words and occasional graphics that bear no resemblance to my concrete flesh, what does that say about the constitutive nature of language on identity, how broadly and deeply can the scope of this constituation go? If you are just one of a community of thousands who are all constructing or supporting the construction of identity in this manner what does this mean.

Is there a sociological or philosophical justification for trans* people for  appropriate the language of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements?

Read Full Post »

It happened again.  A few people got to together and decided to play Loki on the Internet in the name of exposing a perversion of the social justice movement.

In  early June, a person going by the screen name of prince-koyang created a new account on the microblog site Tumblr and made this post (punctuation and spelling is taken verbatim from the post):

“hello there. i’m new to tumblr and just thought i’d introduce myself. my name is jun, or june, depending on how i’m feeling. i’m a 16 year old pangender asexual demiplatonic. i’m also trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat). i have high-functioning autism as well. i’m glad to finally have found a community where i’m accepted & where i can post about my issues

without being discriminated against.

: )

my pronouns are xie, xir, xis and xiself. please feel free to follow me — i’ll follow back!”

Of the comments to this intro, 20 were either “reblogs” where someone connected this post to their own blog, and “likes” which functions in the same manner as the Like button in FaceBook.  The remaining few comments were critical of the use of the term trans-racial and prince-koyang’sself-identifying as a feline Otherkin.  A few others warned xir (pronounced zir) to be cautious on Tumblr because there would be people who would be very vocal in their intolerance for xir differences.

On July 5, 2012 prince-koyang posted the following:

“This is starting to get kind of boring so I suppose it’s time to give it up. As some of our more astute readers have noticed, this is a troll blog — a collaborative trolling effort between three teenagers with too much time on their hands. None of us are autistic, pangender, asexual, demiromantic, transethnic, or a cat, although one of us is 16 and Canadian. It was fun while it lasted.

You have created a community in which someone can ….find it plausible that someone would believe they are a Korean cat with autism and appropriate social justice terminology to defend that belief. What does that say about the state of your community?….

But it’s completely stupid (tw: ableism) and it trivializes the struggles of people who actually suffer from oppression (people laughing at you on the internet is not oppression). It also enables unhealthy escapist attitudes and, in some cases, severe mental illness. One of our more fervent supporters is a diagnosed schizophrenic, who’s chalked up their schizophrenic delusions to their identity as a “multiple system”. Don’t tell them to get treatment, or you’re being oppressive! In short: the Tumblr SJ [social justice] community has turned into a giant joke. And what better way to lampoon it than with, well… a giant joke?”

This post generated over 2000 comments. Most of them supporting (sometimes grudgingly) the points made by the hoaxers. The chorus of voices who were supportive of Jun/June was smaller in terms of their speaking out on the blog but one of them did create a Tumble account called boycott-prince-koyangi which some attempted to use as a rallying site for those who were angered, hurt and/or offended by the blog hoax.

Unsurprisingly, the blog is now just showing a placeholder, the hoaxers job s done and the snake oil salesman has left town. More thoughts on this will follow shortly.  I will also post a page explaining the some of the concepts addressed in the Tumblr hoax such as otherkin, trans-x identities and such.

Read Full Post »

In Part I of The Stranger Among Us, I described a pattern I’ve notices in incidents of online identity deception that included the cultivation of a shadow network of strong ties within the online community.

Julie Graham cultivated strong enough ties with select female members of her community they disclosed intimate details of problems they were having to her. When it came out that the persona of Julie was a lie, one of the often quoted community responses is succinct and potent, “I felt raped” (Stone, 1991, p. 3; see also McGeer, 2004). Kaycee Nicole Swenson formed a such a strong connection with one group member that he helped her set up a website for her poetry (http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819) and said that she was like a daughter to him. J.S. Dirr engaged in at least two cyber romances during that decade long hoax.

Seeking a deeper connection with select group member in and of itself is typical behavior. People will tend to gravitate towards others based on commonalities such as proximity, shared interests, etc. However, the act of cultivating these sub rosa relationships should create a high level of tension for the deceptive individual.

On one hand the goal of the deceptive individual is to prevent detection.  Academics writing about deception have noted that the language constructs used by the deceptive individual are designed to create distance between the false persona and the community. Ambiguous language is a tool of the trade when perpetrating an online deception (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry & Richards, 2003; Hancock, Curry, Goorha, & Woodworth ,2008 ).  This seems to be in direct conflict with the trading of increasingly intimate confidences that deepen a tie

Even though the disclosures are comprised of (at least partially) manufactured information, you’re still talking about an additional piece of deceptive narration that a person has to keep track of. They not only have to keep it straight with the individual they are bonding with but they also have to keep it consistent with the deceptive narrative they are creating within the group. If they are bonding the false person to multiple group members than means there are additional threads for each deepening tie.

This leaves me with a few questions. First, is this something anecdotal, maybe it’s just the case studies I’ve been drawn to read up on? If it’s not, my next question is why does this occur? Is the deceptive person seeding the community with “defenders” who they can depend on to confirm the veracity of the false persona? In cases where the impetus for the deception seems based in emotion, could this just be another way the deceptive individual is trying to get their needs met? (It is interesting to note that in the case of the LonleyGirl15 hoax on YouTube, the false persona initiated selected contact with media sources, but not individuals).

References

Hancock, J. T., Curry, L. E., Goorha, S., & Woodworth, M. (2008). On lying and being lied to: A linguistic analysis of deception in computer-mediated communication. Discourse Processes, 45(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/01638530701739181

http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819 (retreived June 30, 2012)

McGeer, V. (2004). Developing trust on the internet. Analyse & Kritik, 26(1), 91-107.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Read Full Post »

(Part I)

A fellow grad student asked me how I differentiated between incidents of online identity hoaxes and the multiple personas a person may maintain online. I gave him an an answer I was not satisfied with.My last post dealt mainly with the role played by the screen name and how it is the first step in crafting your online identity.When a person crafts a false persona, the name they choose to loose is a significant first step because it affects how others see the persona and how the person who inhabits these person that he or she has created. (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).

Kacey, J.S and Julia. Which is the middle aged woman, which is the plucky teen age girl and which is the hyper sexualized 20something year old man?

Most people would agree that there is a difference between maintaining an online persona (or even multiple personas) and engaging in identity deception. My first instinct is to call malicious intent the linchpin of a working definition. However, that becomes problematic because most of the well known cases of online identity deception are not necessarily rooted in malicious intent.

One of the earliest documented cases of an online identity hoax involved a middle aged disabled woman by the name of Julie.  Stone says, “[I]n the intimate electronic companionships that can develop during on-line conferencing between people….Julie’s women friends shared their deepest troubles, and she offered them advice.…(1991)”. You can guess where this is going.  The persona that people knew as “Julie” was not a middle aged, disabled woman but a middle aged able bodied *male* psychiatrist. When unmasked he said that he had carried on this hoax for 3 years in order to gain greater insight into women and how they communicate. Stone continues, “’I felt raped,’ one [of the women Julie deceived] said. “I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated”.  Several went so far as to repudiate the genuine gains they had made…lives. They felt those gains were predicated on deceit and trickery (1991, p2-3).

The Nowhere Mom hoax was borne out of a similar impulse, the man behind the persona wanted to see what it was like to be a woman in the online community he was a part of. LonelyGirl15, which I wrote a paper on, was a marketing ploy. In this cases of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, J.S. Dirr and Abby Pierce the reasons are less clear but the intent does not seem to be about malice so much as a lonely person trying to create meaning in a life that the feel has none.  Those deceptions seem to have been rooted in emotional or mood disorders.

If not malicious intent, what are the defining factors of a case of online identity deception? The next logical place I would look is at the aftermath of the hoax, when the persona has been unmasked as being false. But that doesn’t seem to fit just right either.

I know I’m going to come back to this.

References
Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

Read Full Post »

A few weeks ago I was explaining my academic interest in online identity hoaxes to another grad student and he asked me a question that I knew the answer to. Well sort of knew the answer to.  He asked me what the difference was between having an online persona and perpetrating an identity hoax.  I gave an answer that wasn’t wrong but didn’t feel complete.  I suspect that like my definition of an online community, this is one of those answers that will evolve the more I study this.

When we join a community or any kind of interactive website, we immediately begin creating our persona.  The first step of that is the selection of our screen name (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).  Bechar-Israeli emphasizes the key role screen makes play in his 1995 observation of screen names (which are called nicknames) in the Internet Relay Chat system. He says, “nicks serve many functions. They are, first of all, a means to announce one’s willingness to play. They are a kind of mini-ritual in which, each time participants log on, they declare their entrance into the state of play…. Nicks become part of our personality and reputation in the computer community” (Bechar-Israeli, 1995, Summary and Discussion, par.3).

Our screen name is another example of Goffman’s cues given and cues given off. For example if one man selects the screen name Robert512 and another man selects SpeedRacer they are sending a message as to how they wish to be seen buy the group. But beyond that, they are giving off cues based on others’ perception based on the type of name they selected, does it reflect a hobby, does it seem like you just threw some numbers on the end of your name, or does describe your outlook on life.  Bechar-Israeli created a taxonomy based on the nearly 300 screen names he reviewed and broke them down into six categories. How much more important is it to choose a screen name for the deceptive identity so that the deception can continue as long as possible without being questioned

  • People using their real name
  • Self related names
  • Names related to medium, technology, and their nature
  • Names of flora, faun, and objects
  • Play on words and sounds
  • Names related to figures in literature, films, fairy tales, and famous people
  • Names related to sex and provocation

But the screen name is just the beginning. There are thousands of ways, highly visible and barely perceptible, that we construct our identities in online communities. The language we use, our demeanor (aggressive, shy, knowledgeable, newbie, chipper, worried), how we interact with others. Even the frequency of our interactions sends a message to the group we may or may not be aware we are sending.

Part II

References

Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

Read Full Post »

The first couple of steps in the online identity hoax process involve a “person” with a compelling life story. Once that person is part of the social structure their life, as documented in their posts, becomes a litany of dramatic events.

The false persona’s posts take on the form of a dramatic narrative with the false persona cast as the brave hero weathering crisis after crisis. Additionally, in these situations the frequency and intensity of the crises increases over time. Despite the unlikelihood of so many major events befalling one person, the hoax continues as a critical mass of group members are still supportive of the false persona (or are keeping any misgivings to themselves).  The group members are generally intelligent, perceptive people who are not new to socializing through computer mediated communication (CMC).

Walther theorizes in Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction (1996), when people communicate via CMC they fill in any missing cues and information heuristically. The deceptive person behind the false persona seems to exploit the Hyperpersonal Effect by creating a character for whom living in a constant state of crisis is the norm. I think creates an environment so rich in heuristic and emotional thoughts and behaviors that it might disrupt the normal socialization process that new group members go through.

The communication of the deceptive individual behind the deception seems to be in synch with Zhou, Burgoon, Zhang and Nunamaker’s observations about the language dominance of a deceptive individual in CMC environments (2004). They found that the intensity of the deceiver’s communication increased over the life of the deception as a mechanism for asserting language dominance over the group’s communication. This is consistent with the increasing the false persona experiencing increasingly dramatic incidents in their lives (as presented through their posts).

One of the things I wonder is what role, if any, the constant stream of crises play in prolonging the deception. Some of the elements presented by the false persona seem ludicrous after the fact. What prevents group members from seeing it or, at the very least, mentioning any misgivings they may have?

Could it be that it goes unchallenged because the issues adopted by the false persona are sensitive ones. Cancer or the death of a child are issues that touch the deepest of human fears. Could group members be consciously or unconsciously fearful of violating the social norm of holding these kinds of stories sacrosanct?  My other idea is that the deception might go unchallenged because these crises create a collective anxiety that uses up so much cognitive processing, either collectively and/or on the individual level that there is insufficient processing power left to engage in any kind of meaningful warranting of the false persona’s stories.

I guess I just assigned myself a new paper….

References

Zhou, L., Burgoon, J. K., Zhang, D., & Nunamaker, J. F. (2004). Language dominance in interpersonal deception in computer-mediated communication. Computers in Human Behavior, 20(3), 381. doi:10.1016/S0747-5632(03)00051-7

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43. doi:10.1177/009365096023001001

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »