Via the excellent Museum of Hoaxes, I discovered two recent articles describing people faking deaths online. This piqued my interest, due in part to my long-established interest in scams and hoaxes, and also because we had a commenter on Skepchick last year who faked his own death.
At the time, we didn’t discuss it here on Skepchick because we weren’t interested in giving an obviously sick person more unhealthy attention. I bring it up now due to the relevancy of this article in Wired, which peers into the weirdness surrounding people who fake their own deaths.
The situation on Skepchick mirrored some of those described in the article. The short story is that a commenter began dropping hints to various Skepchick writers that he was terminally ill. It may not be immediately obvious, but we Skepchicks talk a lot behind the scenes, via e-mail, phone, skype, and in person. Thus, not a day had passed before we were comparing notes and finding that the details weren’t matching up. At first it was awkwardâ€”despite the fact that we value our ability to doubt and use reason, we felt bad using those tools to debunk someone who claimed to be a friend who was dying. Still, we couldn’t overlook the fact that nothing about the person’s story added up.
When the commenter’s “girlfriend” showed up to inform us that he was in the hospital and about to die, we collectively rolled our eyes. The persona was embarrassingly written, informing us that she couldn’t tell us what hospital he was in, what his disease was, who was treating him, where we could send flowers, or even what his full name is (despite the fact that several of the Skepchicks already knew his full real name). It was a transparent bid for attention and sympathy. We finally decided to stop responding, and banned the single IP address that was the source of both the commenter and his “girlfriend’s” posts.
Shortly thereafter, the commenter posted to his own blog that he had died. We made no posts about it on Skepchick. A week or so later, he posted again to say it had all been an art project, that he was alive and well and sorry for any pain he had caused. He attempted to explain and excuse his actions by suggesting that they had some deeper purpose, which he failed to grasp or convey. I’m not entirely sure what he’s been up to since, but hopefully it involves therapy.
According to the Wired article, there are so many people like this that there’s a LiveJournal group called fake_lj_deaths that patrols the site looking for cases. They’re motivated at least partially by the disruption caused in online communities when a person fakes a death, particularly communities that are devoted to providing support to people who are actually sick or dying.
It seems from the article as though our commenter isn’t at all unique in claiming to be engaged in some kind of intellectual experiment. A usenet poster named M Otis Beard faked a suicide and later emerged:
“You thought you had irretrievably lost something; that something is now returned to you,” he wrote. “If I hadn’t made you sad by pretending to be dead, I wouldn’t have been able to make you happy (well, OK, angry and THEN happy) by jumping out of my coffin, whole and hale. Forgive me for putting you through the emotional roller coaster ride, which I hope was a healthily cathartic experience for all of you.”
That may have passed for insight back in 1999, but ten social-media-filled years later, does anyone really doubt our ability to form connections online? These days, can pseudo-cidal fakers be anything more than sad cases with low self-esteem desperate for any attention they can get?
Another recent article may offer other possible motivations: politics and money.
A woman named Beccah Beushausen started blogging about her pregnancy, claiming that the fetus was terminally ill and would die soon after birth, but she was anti-abortion and refused to end the pregnancy. She became a minor hero of other anti-abortionists, who promoted her site, sent her gifts, and paid for advertising. She “gave birth” last Sunday, showing a photo of the baby that was immediately recognized . . . as a doll.
There are a few glimpses of possible motives for the hoax:
Beushausen said she really did lose a son shortly after birth in 2005. She started her blog in March to help deal with that loss and to express her strong anti-abortion views, she said.
She wouldn’t be the first to make up a story in order to influence people’s political views, and frankly considering the common underhanded tactics used by the anti-abortion crowd, I’m surprised this is the first big dead baby hoax.
Then there’s the financial appeal. Though the article states that “there’s no evidence that Beushausen benefited financially in any significant way,” it also shows that at least one couple sent her several hundreds of dollars. It also states that “eager advertisers were lining up,” though it’s not clear if she accepted their offers.
That’s not to say that politics and money were the onlyâ€”or even primaryâ€”factors. It’s very possible that those were secondary to the same motive that seem to drive the pseudo-cidals mentioned above: a desperate need for attention, no matter how unhealthy that attention is.