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Posts Tagged ‘Nowheremom’

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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(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.

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My adviser sent me a link to a story in Gawker about JS Dirr and the Warrior Eli hoax.

The process of an online identity hoax in a community of choice intrigues me because after all that holds these communities together are the thin threads of  mutual trust and an tacit agreement that people will be relatively truthful in their communication. It is one thing to fib about your education or age and something else to create a false persona and to actively convince people they are interacting with it. At some point I hope to study what happens to communities in the wake of this type of traumatic event and what markers might predict which communities will become more tightly knit and which will fall apart or fracture into pieces.

In my research on incidents of  identity deception*, one thing I’ve noticed in the is that of the all of the ones I reviewed seem to follow a very similar script as outlined below.  I will expand on my thoughts on each of these points in subsequent blog posts.

The Identity Deception Process

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.  Nowheremom was a single mother in a community that was predominantly men; Kaycee Nicole Swenson was a bright teenager who was cheerful despite batting cancer and in the case of JS Dirr the persona was presented as a member of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police who seemed to get every girlfriend pregnant.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s posts take on a “Perils of Pauline” motif. This is usually not apparent and/or discussed within the group until late in the deception. One interesting example (I’m sorry, I can’t remember the article so I don’t have cite for this), was a quote I read in an article about the Kaycee Nicole Swenson hoax. One of the group members was a nurse and recognized that a particular treatment alluded to by Kaycee was not the correct treatment for the life threatening crisis she claimed to have had. He didn’t raise his suspicions publicly and the
  3. Next, they will begin an intense one on one correspondence offline with several select group members. I sometimes wonder whether this is done to fulfill a need on the part of the deceptive individual or
  4. In the final act, 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

* My capstone project for my Masters program was a content analysis of the YouTube LonelyGirl15 hoax.

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