An online sickness

The first academic review article on ‘Munchausen by Internet‘ – where people fake the identity of an ill person online – has just been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Munchausen syndrome is a common name for facticious disorder where people consciously fake illnesses for their own gain.

This is distinguished from malingering – where the gain would be something obvious like money, drugs or missing military service – and instead the gain from factitious illness typically includes the indirect benefits of faking – like being cared for, avoiding family conflict and so on.

The person is deliberately faking but they may not be fully conscious of all the emotional benefits – they might just say ‘it feels right’ or ‘it helps me’.

Obviously, this has been a problem for millennia but there has been an increasing recognition that the phenomenon happens online. People take up the identity of someone with an illness that gives them a special place in an online community.

This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretence could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.

The article gives lots of example and some ways of spotting Munchausen fakers that also gives an insight into their thinking:

  • Posts consistently duplicating material in other posts, books, or health-related websites.
  • Characteristics of the supposed illness emerging as caricatures.
  • Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.
  • Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.
  • Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.
  • Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.
  • Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual having identical patterns of writing.

  • The piece gets quite wordy at times (well, it is an academic article) but it’s an interesting insight into a motivations of people who ‘fake sick’ on the internet.
     

    Link to full text of article.

    5 Comments

    1. Ben
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      The date says August 2012. Am I missing something?

    2. Posted February 15, 2013 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      I first started hanging ouut in online chat rooms around early ’97. One of the regulars in one of the chat rooms I frequented often claimed to be sick, hospitalized, recovering from surgery, etc. I’ve had enough firsthand experience with hospitals and medicine that it became increasingly clear to me that the “ill” person was, at best, exaggerating, at worst, outright lying.

      “Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.

      Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.

      Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.

      Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.”

      She displayed all of these characteristics. At one point, she was regaling the chat room with a salacious story about how she was “having sex with her fiance on the telemetry floor”. She claimed that all she had to do was pull the curtain around her bed, and nobody bothered them. I asked her how she managed that–presumably if she’s on a telemetry floor, she’s hooked up to, at minimum, a heart monitor. Sexual arousal causes one’s breathing and heart rate to increase. If they’re concerned about her heart, wouldn’t they try to contact her? If she failed to answer, wouldn’t the nurses come rushing in? When I started asking her more pointed, detailed questions about her supposed ailments, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, that’s when things began to fall apart for her. I haven’t seen her in that chat room in at least a decade.

    3. Chris March
      Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      90% of people on the internet have Asperger’s or “Asperger’s traits”. It’s no longer cool to fake serious illnesses like cancer.

    4. Posted February 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      Take a look at usenet. It’s still around: Google Groups. In particular alt.support.eating-disord
      There were a couple of fake death iirc.

    5. titomaximus
      Posted February 23, 2013 at 1:09 am | Permalink

      I started using ICQ in 2000, so I have over 12 years worth of log files. It’s a very useful thing to have. The number of times I’ve caught people in a (serious) lie almost makes you question the integrity of people in general.

      Often you’ll catch someone on a message board in a lie because something he posted yesterday didn’t match what he told you in a chat 5 years ago. Is he telling the truth now and did he lie 5 years ago, or is it the other way around? Is this his first lie? Hard to tell and even harder to trust him ever again.

      In the early days of the internet, there was a saying “If you are chatting with a 21 year old woman, ‘she’ is probably really a 55 year old bald man”. Judging by the frequency with which people tell lies online, in a few cases a 21 year old probably really is a 55 year old. And if we are that bad a judging people online and catching their lies, what if people are pretending to be someone else in an attempt to defraud us and not just to get attention?

      Thank you for your post. It reminds us to be careful online.


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