Faking tragedy and the pull of online sympathy

The Guardian has a fascinating article about the motivations of people who have faked terminal illnesses as their online companions have offered support and sympathy right until the supposed end.

Several cases have become notorious online where illnesses, and even deaths, have been faked much to the betrayal of community members.

Mandy is one of a growing number of people who pretend to suffer illness and trauma to get sympathy from online support groups. Think of Tyler Durden and Marla Singer in Fight Club, only these support groups are virtual, and the people deceived are real. From cancer forums to anorexia websites, LiveJournal to Mumsnet, trusting communities are falling victim to a new kind of online fraud, one in which people are scammed out of their time and emotion instead of their money. The fakers have nothing to gain from their lies – except attention.

These aren’t just people with a sick sense of humour. Jokers want a quicker payoff than this kind of hoax could ever provide. It requires months of sophisticated research to develop and sustain a convincing story, as well as a team of fictitious personas to back up the web of deceit. Psychiatrists say the lengths to which people like Mandy are prepared to go mean their behaviour is pathological, a disorder rather than simply an act of spite. The irony is these people might actually be classed as ill – just not in the way they claim to be.

This type of behaviour can be diagnosed as facticious disorder in the DSM with the idea that the motivation is to gain the psychological benefits of the ‘sick role’ – i.e. a caring response from other people.

It is considered a mental illness and is sometimes labelled Munchausen syndrome after the German Baron who was famous for his tall tales.

However, faking illness to get material benefits or to avoid responsibilities is classified as malingering is not considered a mental illness, although no justification is usually given for why one is considered an illness and the other just ‘bad behaviour’.

To complicate matters further, it seems some people can experience serious medical problems (e.g. paralysis, blindness) with nothing seeming to be wrong with them – but crucially – they are not doing so consciously.

In other words, they are not ‘faking’ in the normal sense of the word and these conditions are typically diagnosed as conversion disorder.

If they sound exotic, about 10-20% of all neurology examinations turn up no damage that could explain the symptoms.

Considering we have all faked or exaggerated illness to some degree, and the fact that our unconscious mind has a powerful effect on the experience of symptoms – regardless of their physical basis, we can consider terminal illness fakers as one end of a behaviour spectrum on which we all live.

The Guardian article looks at the increasingly recognised online expression of this behaviour (with the inevitable unnecessary suggestion of an online specific diagnosis) and some fascinating individual cases.

Link to article ‘Faking illness online’.

2 thoughts on “Faking tragedy and the pull of online sympathy”

  1. I’m glad that these articles are recent, because I have come across a woman who has been faking a terminal disease and had only months to live. The reality is that she has been actively “dying” for over ten years now. Her story is that she was in full recovery from anorexia (which she claims she’s been suffering from since the age of ten, apparently) but it was too late: This individual has almost complete organ failure—-Gastroparesis , where the stomach has paralysed and requires emptying its contents with a tube, her colon has been removed (several times), her intestines were kinked, according to her niece, this person throws up “black stuff” and had a pool of blood under the tube. This blood claim was talked in such a nonchalant manner that her so-called friends began unfriending her in droves Apparently, she hasn’t had a meal in years and is tube fed exclusively. Her picc line has become infected numerous times, but there is a video showing her deliberately contaminating the tubes. She has a dog licking her face and the house is incredibly filthy.

    This person has an expensive laptop computer, a wide screen TV, a swing on her porch, many DVD’s, trips to the ocean so she can see it for “one last time” and Amazon gift cards for the family to go online and have items delivered to her house. All sent to her because most people had believed her story about her impending death. There’s a lot more, but I won’t regale you with it, as this post is too long as it is. But you get the idea.

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