Taryn Harper Wright spends her spare time unraveling the stories of people who fake illnesses online, a syndrome known as 'Munchausen by Internet'. She talks with Bob about how she spots hoaxes among countless illness-related blogs, Facebook pages, and message boards, and the surprising relationships she's formed with some of the people she's exposed.
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Song: "Carmen Fantasy: Habanera" by Anderson and Roe
BOB: We know internet has created countless ways to commune or commiserate with sympathetic souls. Illness is a particularly rich subject, with innumerable facebook groups, blogs, and online communities designed to connect the afflicted and raise awareness worldwide. As one of our listeners, Nicole, told us earlier this year, such connections can be priceless.
LISTENER VOICEMAIL: I credit social media with leading me to the effective treatment for my cancer. I was diagnosed with stage 4 appendix cancer, which is a very rare cancer. You know, the prognosis is usually quite poor. But I was able to find a Facebook group specifically for appendix cancer and talking to the patients on that group lead me to a specialist in Baltimore.
BOB: But as with so much of the internet, there lurks a dark side: online hoaxes, designed to generate cash donations or just the attention of strangers. Taryn Harper Wright devotes her free time to uncovering illness hoaxes. This began about three years ago, while Taryn herself was bedridden after a hip injury, with lots of free time to browse Facebook. One day, a post about the death of a woman from Saskatchewan named Dana Dirr appeared in her newsfeed.
WRIGHT: Dana Dirr was a canadian trauma surgeon and the mother of 11 children, who was killed in a drunk driving accident on the night before mother’s day.
BOB: Dana Dirr was pregnant when this accident occurred, and she gave birth to a child right before she passed away in the very same hospital where she had saved lives daily for years. As if that weren’t heart-wrenching enough…
WRIGHT: The family als o had a little guy who was 8 years old who had been fighting cancer for years and years and was just about to pretty much die from cancer when his mother was killed in the drunk driving accident. The father was a Canadian mountie and they had adopted a bunch of children. This came across my Facebook feed three years ago, the most tragic awful story ever.
BOB: And you looked at this story and you said oh my goodness this is -- wait, what? Your antennae went up.
WRIGHT: It did. I did a Google news search right away just to see what these people looked like, nothing popped up, other than facebook posts and blog posts that the family themselves had made, so that right away kind of tinged my radar because mother dying on mother's day and delivering the baby as she was dying, that would have been something that somebody would have picked up on. Some of the pictures showed up in google image search and children who were supposedly the Dirr children ended up being the children of a south african blogger.
BOB: So, something was rotten in Saskatchewan. How long did it take you to figure out who was doing what and how?
WRIGHT: It took a good 13 or 14 hours to get to who was behind the hoax. I kept updating my blog as the night went on and i would get more and more emails from people who had interactd with the Dirr family. Pretty soon I got a return address label from a woman in Ohio named Emily Dirr. Turned out that she was the person that was behind the hoax.
BOB: What did she have to say to you?
WRIGHT: At first she said that her brother was a canadian mountie, that the story did really happen that the reason that other people's children's pictures were involved was because he had a really top secret government job and couldn't post pictures of his own family. We were at that point talking over email and I said to her, you know, I don't believe any of this, read the blog, we talked on the phone and she basically confessed the whole thing.
BOB: You discovered how many fake Facebook profiles that she had to assemble to keep this Ponzi scheme of sympathy going?
WRIGHT: She had 71 or 72 fake facebook profiles. She also had sent out awareness bracelets, kind of like the yellow livestrong bracelets that people wear with warrior Eli written on them to draw attention to her web pages and descriptions of the family's cancer battle.
BOB: Now people who have seen the documentary called Catfish are probably familiar with this kind of pathology, someone perpetrating extraordinarily intricate frauds not for any financial benefit, but as you say, just to get attention. Did she seem especially needy to you when you spoke to her?
WRIGHT: She had sort of a flat affect, I don't think she was going through a good time in her life. I don't think I'll ever really know her motivation, but i do think it was something that kind of snowballed out of control for her. She didn't really expect to pick up the following that she did. She didn't really expect for people to hang on every word that the family wrote on facebook, and on their blog. And honestly when we talked on the phone, she told me that she was actually glad that it was over with, that she had been kind of looking for a way out of it.
BOB: Now Emily Dirr was your first gotcha but not your last and not even your most bizarre. can you tell me about some of the other hoaxes you've uncovered?
WRIGHT: We've had people who were faking cancer both online and in their real life. Shave their heads told everyone around them that they had cancer. A lot of these people that make fake cancer battles online, they're exposed, they just kind of pack up shop and they move onto another blog or another support group or another facebook group. it seems to be a real draw and a pull for them to do it against and again.
BOB: Now there is actually a psychiatric condition that describes this very behavior, long before the internet. It goes back to the middle part of the 19th century --
WRIGHT: It's called Munchausen's syndrome. And that's a condition in which somebody makes themselves physically sick for attention from doctors or from their loved ones. Munchausen by proxy is when somebody makes one of their loved ones sick, their children typically, Munchausen by internet is when someone goes online and poses as someone with an illness or someone who has a family member with an illness for attention and accolades from people who read their story.
BOB: So you go through many facebook pages and other kinds of outreach - are there any telltale signs for you that there is a hoax afoot?
WRIGHT: Yeah, if you look at a page and it's just constant up and down drama, if they're not slipping into a coma one day, they're getting into a car accident the following day. There's always a baby that's in the neonatal intensive care unit, just a ton of drama like it's something was like on the WB or something that to me would be a definite red flag.
BOB: Not only have you contacted these people and confronted them, you have since befriended a number of these people who were preying on the sympathies of outsiders. How did it happen that they became your friends?
WRIGHT: I didn't expect it. I pretty much expected when I contacted them that they would be very angry with me. Along the lines of you know talking to them about what i had found out about them, I discovered that there were lots of things about them that i did like. i don't condone what they're doing but at the same time I can understand why they're doing it, they're not in a good place, they're not terrible people, they're not demons. I would never want to be judged by the worst thing that I did.
BOB: What's the worst thing that you've done?
WRIGHT: [laughs] I'm taking the fifth on that one.
BOB: I withdraw the question.
WRIGHT: Thank you, I appreciate it.
BOB: Is there anything that these people have in common?
WRIGHT: We've had people that don't fit this mold, but typically it's a woman in their early 20s. To me they sound like they're depressed. I almost feel sometimes like they're not comfortable with sort of sharing their own details, so they take on the persona of someone they admire.
BOB: Now look, I don't want to sound like Oprah here, but as someone who had hitherto never really dug deep journalistically or otherwise into the secrets of the human heart, what have you learned from doing the blog Warrior Eli Hoax dot com?
WRIGHT:That people's stories are deeper than you would give them credit for. That even somebody that when I'm researching them, to me seems like the worst person on the planet, that when I talk to them, and get to know them, they're not somebody that is without good qualities. I've also learned that that internet is not the nicest place for people when something like this comes out. That people are pretty quick to form a virtual lynch mob and that to me is sort of disturbing too.
BOB: Taryn thank you so much.
WRIGHT:Thank you bob.
BOB: Taryn Harper Wright former futures trader on the Chicago board of trade runs the blog warrior eli hoax dot com.
BACK ANNOUNCE [because we should credit Fusion]: Taryn Harper Wright, former futures trader on the Chicago Board of Trade, blogs about online illness hoaxes at warrior-eli-hoax-dot-com. She wrote about it for Fusion.