fbpx
19/05/2019 Communication Science news and articles

Faking a Disease Online: Munchausen by Internet

Who can we trust online? This article explores the distressing phenomenon of Munchausen by internet.


The Internet has made it easy for multitudes of people with chronic illnesses to connect with one another. However, the accessibility of medical literature, chronic illness-based forums and groups, and the anonymity one possess lead to many cases of people faking various illnesses, most of them terminal. The behavior was assigned the term ‘Munchausen by internet’ (MBI), coined by psychiatrist Marc Feldman in 2000. With a plethora of information and willing sympathizers, earning emotional validation, support, or even donations is at one’s fingertips.

What’s Munchausen by internet and what is it like?
Unfortunately, I already had a run-in with MBI before. I’ve been friends with James (not his real name), an 18-year-old, through Twitter for several months before he told me he was dying of leukemia. From then on, his cancer cast a shadow over our friendship. He would send me pictures of him going to chemotherapy, or he’d tell me that he’s moving back to his home country to get better, less expensive healthcare and be closer to his loved ones. As news spread throughout our social circle, people were aware that he was down to the last few months of his life. His leukemia had reached its terminal stage, and no amount of therapy or even the possibility of a bone marrow transplant could help him.

After 2 years of enduring friendship, James’s girlfriend announced one morning that he had passed away and live-Tweeted her attempts at attending his funeral and the details of his death. It was all very believable; who were we to question anything? We didn’t know that at the end of 2015, a mere ten months later, he would admit that with the help of his girlfriend, he had faked his leukemia (not to mention death). Duping a dozen people or so in the process.

Munchausen by internet, like Munchausen syndrome, is a factitious disorder. A person would pretend to have an illness, usually chronic, on the Internet for sympathy. Symptoms include exaggerated illness-based symptoms, resistance against contact beyond the Internet, and a contradiction between user behavior and physical symptoms. Some even go further and construct entirely fictional identities to act as their MBI persona. And the features that made the Internet so welcoming for some are often weaponized for their quest for sympathy.

How the Internet’s features get exploited
It’s been increasingly easy to search up information on the Internet. The medical information on websites such as WebMD and NHS are often considered reliable, with detailed descriptions on symptoms, expectations, and possible treatment routes. A person with no previous medical knowledge can easily claim that they have a terminal illness like cancer; they could also steal strangers’ photos of themselves (or their diagnosis, if they happened to share it) to further make their story believable. This was most prominently featured in the Dirr case, where Emily Dirr created 71 different personalities on Facebook in an attempt to make the story of Eli, a young boy fighting cancer, more believable.

Furthermore, people are more welcome others seeking support in open arms: a case involving Marissa Marchand was rooted in compassion. She had reportedly received help in the form of money and gifts like wigs for her chemotherapy from the forum’s members; by manipulating members’ good faith and kind intentions, she had turned her medical condition into a cash cow by which she could receive donations and other financial assistance, much like many others. The exploitation of people’s goodwill seems to be central to high-profile cases surrounding MBI: Kaycee Nicole fooled millions with her realistic, bare-bones struggle against leukemia. Wellness blogger Belle Gibson winkled a book deal, an app, and presumably a fortune out of her fight against brain cancer. But people often forget about others who are involved: the victims themselves.

Picking up the pieces
After the fraudster has been discovered, most groups attempt to prevent the person from benefitting even further by cross-posting information from one forum to another. If they are lucky, major publications will pick the story up, catapulting the issue into the public eye. But it’s difficult to measure the emotional damage that people with MBI have thoroughly dealt on people who thought that they had a connection with them. So far, only a few research papers have thoroughly explored why those with MBI choose to fake diseases they’ve never had and dupe people they’ve never met. Less research has been devoted to the psychological effects this may have on their victims.

Furthermore, it’s always a question of “Why would they do that?” that haunts those affected. Perhaps it’s because those with MBI needed to be loved, and the Internet seems to be an eternal spring of support and love. It’s what makes faking it so enduring: it feels so good to be loved. A now-deleted Wired article details the stories of various people with Munchausen syndrome (by Internet) and a poignant quote from one of those interviewed, “Sara”, stands out:

“Just because it is given a name, Munchausen syndrome or Munchausen by internet syndrome, does not mean that I can or will get away with everything I have done. I am a fake, a liar, a fraud, a manipulator, whatever you call it. I have intense self-hatred and I know that I am pathetic, despicable and evil… Everyone wants and needs someone to care for and about them. Humans crave love and attention. We all want to feel loved. We all want to feel that someone actually cares about us.”

The Internet has made it surprisingly easy to have an illness. Common courtesy has warded off suspicion on delicate topics as a chronic, life-threating illness; despite the work of hoax-busters against possible fake cases of cancer or deaths, there could be (and possibly is) hundreds, if not thousands, cases of Munchausen by internet. And the damage, whether financial or psychological, may not be measurable.

After James’s letter had gotten out, Munchausen by internet had splintered my former social circle and destroyed any chance of reconciliation with James and his now-ex-girlfriend. To this day, I wonder why we had been so easily duped. In a sense, “Sara” was right. We all wanted to feel loved. Some people just chose to do that at others’ expense.

Final Editor: Mana Reed Stutchbury
Cover: Unsplash/Marcelo Leal

59 Total Views 1 Views Today

Reacties

reacties

Related Posts

The Brutally Feminine Murder of the Anti-Hero

18/05/2019

18/05/2019

We all love a hero, but sometimes, an anti-hero is even better. This article explores moral ambiguity and why we are attracted to it.

#RIPDorisDay

17/05/2019

17/05/2019

The world mourns as news of the passing of Doris Day arrives. Medium remembers a woman whose movies and music earned her the status of a Hollywood legend.

Tessa: De geneeskundestudent die geniet van haar leven in Maastricht

13/05/2019

13/05/2019

Dit keer geen student uit Amsterdam, maar een student uit Maastricht! Medium sprak met geneeskundestudent Tessa over haar studentenleven in Maastricht en hoe communicatie een rol speelt in haar studie.

Your nightlife review: De School, Amsterdam

10/05/2019

10/05/2019

Gabby reviews De School, mainly known as a techno nightclub. Is it worth a visit? And why is there such a strict doorpolicy? We sum up the good and bad points for you.

The Pursuit of the Perfect Picture and its Consequences

09/05/2019

09/05/2019

A lot of people nowadays do the craziest things to get the most beautiful Instagram photos. It's all fun and games, until people's properties get destroyed. Angela discusses 3 places in the world where 'Instagram tourists' have taken over.

Quality of public debate and social media

07/05/2019

07/05/2019

Does social media add or subtract from the quality of public debate today? Aakansha shares her take on the controversial topic.

Everything Not Saved Will be Lost

03/05/2019

03/05/2019

As our lives today are intertwined with that of the objects we are surrounded by, Ada dives into minimalism, decluttering and downsizing.

Medium TV – Brexit, just what the bloody hell went wrong? | MediumTV #19

30/04/2019

30/04/2019

Medium TV asked Jeppe and Charlie a few questions on Brexit. Watch the interview and listen to their opinions about it.

Outraved: Dance Demonstration for Your Education | MediumTV #18

29/04/2019

29/04/2019

Medium was present at 12 April's Outraved; a demonstration against budget cuts on education.

Medium TV interviews Leon Willems, director of Free Press Unlimited | MediumTV #17

29/04/2019

29/04/2019

Leon Willems, director of Free Press Unlimited since May 2011

VR Butterfly (World)

29/04/2019

29/04/2019

In a world where we are losing touch with our natural environment, can virtual reality save the day?

Just dance! Social interaction and communication inside a nightclub

26/04/2019

26/04/2019

When the beat drops and strobes lights start flashing through the dark, the way people dance functions as a primitive but universal language. It brings people from all places together through an intense form of communication. Gabby explains why dancing can function as a communicative medium and how this works.

Parenting in the digital age

25/04/2019

25/04/2019

Parenting is and always has been hard. With social media nowadays, it hasn't become easier. Would you want your kids to develop a digital footprint earlier than they develop the ability to speak?

Is Having a Restricted Press Really Such a Bad Thing?

22/04/2019

22/04/2019

Having a government-controlled press, singapore has been ranked 150th out of 180 countries on the World Freedom Press Index. But is this controlled press really a bad thing in a time were fake news thrives?

Backstage bij Dotcomspot: Raf

19/04/2019

19/04/2019

In deze editie van backstage sprak Medium met Raf die stage loopt bij Dotcomsport.

EnjoyInstagram