By On October 10th, 2012

The Disorder Behind Those Fake Chain Mail Stories

We all regularly see the stories pop up in their Facebook feed, similar to those passed around in e-mail chains. Stories of children born with a terrible medical issue, only to have to fight a brain tumor right as they were beginning to get on their feet.

These stories play on emotions, and often rally for support, but sadly many of them are fake.

The people creating these fake stories are being linked to an old disorder with a new version, Munchausen by Internet, or MBI. The original Munchausen disorder causes people to make themselves appear sick, or often actually making themselves sick for attention.

“It refers to people who go online and either feign, exaggerate, or in the most extreme cases, actually induce illness and present themselves to health-based support groups or special interest groups online in order to mobilize attention and sympathy,” Dr. Marc Feldman, a clinical professor of psychiatry and adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, who coined the term, told FoxNews.com.

Feldmen started investigating MBI in 1998 after giving a speech about Munchausen syndrome, where a person shared a story with Feldman about a person going online and claiming to have cancer, asking for help to afford medical care. In this particular instance, the “victim” claimed to be a monk, and couldn’t afford medical care because of a vow of poverty, but these are just variables to a common story.

The anonymity offered by the internet, combined with the feelings of community found in social networks and online health forums allow MBI sufferers to present themselves as victims of terrible diseases, which offers them a sense of human connection.

It is important to note, real sufferers of MBI are not the people trying to scam you out of money. According to Feldman, MBI patients usually have deep-seated personality disorders that prevent them from getting their needs in healthy ways, but they do not mean to cause problems for others. They are looking for human connection, not cash.

“I’ve had some of the [MBI patients] tell me their stories and it always comes back to this core of un-socially skilled or non-socially skilled people who are alone and lonely, and find a shortcut to building a supportive community around them.”

One of the biggest tip-offs to MBI perpetrators is the creation of new personas or profiles called “sock puppets” used to support the initial deception. They have the same writing styles and errors present in their writing, which reveal the profiles are the same person. Feldman says, “They’ll originally claim to be an individual with cancer, but then sign on as their mother who supports the deceptions and say ‘yes indeed, we’re all struggling with John’s cancer.’  And then sign on as a girlfriend who’s pregnant with his child, and so on.”

The hardest part of diagnosing people with the disorder is their common reluctance to admit to their lies and deceptions. The deceptive nature of the disorder makes it more common for victims to try to hide their deceptions until they crumble around them, and then rebuild.

“They’re happy to claim a medical diagnosis they don’t really have, but they won’t accept a psychiatric diagnosis which they really do have.”


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