Munchausen by Internet is a term coined by psychiatry professor Dr. Marc Feldman to describe the online manifestation of the mental disorder called Munchausen Syndrome, i.e., people who fake their own illness. People with Munchausen by Internet join online social groups and pretend to be ill because they crave the attention, care, and sympathy that sick people get. They do it to get attention and lenience, act out anger and jealousy, and/or control others. This type of behavior is on the rise online, so it’s helpful to learn how to recognize it and how to react when you do encounter it.
How to Identify a Faker Online
If you spend any significant amount of time socializing online, you’ve probably come across at least a few people who claim to be seriously ill. Your online friend’s plight might tug at your heartstrings, but how can you tell when someone is legitimately in trouble and when he/she is just faking? According to Dr. Feldman’s research, there are ten common clues to detect whether you’re being duped by someone with Munchausen by Internet. Here’s a summary, paraphrased in simple language, of what Dr. Feldman says to watch for:
1. The person uses detailed medical discussions copied from textbooks or medical sites.
2. It’s obvious that the person would not be capable of posting or chatting if he were really as seriously ill as he claims.
3. The person doesn’t understand the disease he supposedly has, so his symptoms are exaggerated or seem like a caricature of the illness.
4. The person alternates between almost dying and miraculously recovering.
5. The person gives contradictory or obviously false information about his condition.
6. When the group begins to pay more attention to other members, the person makes a new, dramatic announcement in order to put himself back in the spotlight.
7. The person claims that the lack of sympathy from group members is causing his condition to worsen.
8. The person gives bizarre excuses why he can’t communicate with group members by any method other than online.
9. The person describes his misfortunes with inappropriate happiness in order to attract more attention.
10. New group members show up to post on behalf of the person. These new characters have the same writing style as the person suspected of having Munchausen by Internet.
How to Deal With Someone Exhibiting Munchausen by Internet
The impact of this kind of deception on Internet communities is pretty bad. It tends to rip them apart as people take sides, some believing the ruse and others pointing out the deception. Group members are accused of disloyalty, gullibility, persecution, etc. Dr. Feldman acknowledges that sadism, on the part of the “patient,” is present in the worst cases. Victims of such deceit say that they feel “emotionally raped” when they find out that they’ve been deceived. Sometimes, groups that fall prey to such a scenario never recover from the negativity and schisms that arise.
What should an Internet group do when they suspect that such a situation is unfolding? It’s important to balance skepticism with empathy; not everybody is a “faker.” In a self-help article, Dr. Feldman suggests having “a small number of established members gently, empathetically, and privately question the author of the dubious posts.” He suggests that at first the person will vehemently deny any accusation, but eventually the person will disappear from the group. Some groups will opt to ban the perpetrator and ban any further discussion of the individual and the general drama created. Dr. Feldman says, “Remaining members may need to enlist help in processing their feelings, ending any bickering or blaming, and refocusing the group on its original laudable goal.”
Despite this expert advice, another logical conclusion might be, given the emotional toll that Munchausen by Internet can have on victims of deception, that it’s best to focus on identifying the problem behavior and then to steer clear of the person completely.
Marc D. Feldman, M.D., “Munchausen by Internet: Detecting Factitious Illness and Crisis on the Internet,” Southern Medical Journal
Marc D. Feldman, M.D. and Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., “Doctor Exposes Munchausen by Internet,” SelfhelpMagazine
Harold Swains, “Q&A: Munchausen by internet,” Wired.co.uk
This article is intended to convey general educational information and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.