The lies escalate slowly, which makes them harder to detect. Someone might sound like a walking textbook when talking about their symptoms, or they may be quick to duplicate the symptoms of other people around them. The lies are intricate, detailed, engrossing. Terrible setbacks are followed by miraculous recoveries. And if someone else becomes the center of attention, their condition will dramatically worsen or they will become the victim of a sudden tragic event.
“A death in the family is common,” Feldman adds. “They’re usually gruesome deaths or multiple deaths—like a motor accident that kills the entire family. Either that or they’re surprisingly vivid, like someone describing a decapitation in vivid detail.”
Some people even invent tertiary characters—friends, siblings, a concerned mother—to jump into internet threads and corroborate their stories.
The lies slowly escalate, pile up, and create an improbable whole. Then one day, you realize you’re friends with a 15-year-old chronic migraine sufferer online who also happens to be a fourth-year medical school student who plays drums in a band at night—despite those crippling migraines—to pay his med school tuition because his deaf mother and alcoholic stepfather have no interest in his baby-genius education. Oh, and since he’s not yet old enough to drive, he skateboards three miles a day to get to class.
“Munchausen by Internet,” the Bournemouth University study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, hypothesizes that many Munchausen by internet sufferers are motivated by one of two dominant personality traits: narcissism or sadism. Narcissists don’t form online relationships to build interpersonal intimacy; they do it for the audience or to appear popular and successful. When confronted about their deceptions, narcissists are prone to cut their losses and shut down their blog or leave their support group, only to replant elsewhere under a new handle. Sadists, however, “actively seek to disrupt and cause problems for their own satisfaction or enjoyment,” the study says. When confronted about their deceptions, these people fight back, and they fight dirty. For this reason, the study notes, they’re often lumped into the same category as internet trolls.
To some extent, the label fits. Even Luddites know that internet trolls are those anonymous assholes who deface blogs, news articles, YouTube videos, even tribute pages to dead children by ceremoniously calling someone fat or a fag or whatever. Anything to prompt readers to froth at the mouth. Trolls are a normal byproduct of online socialization—as ubiquitous as cat videos and cash-poor Nigerian princes. The only way to deal with them is to ignore them. Do not feed the troll (DNFTT), as the saying goes.
But there’s an important difference between standard internet trolls and a Munchausen by internet troll: the setting in which they operate.
Because unlike standard trolls, Munchausen by internet trolls infiltrate the “open trusting environments of communication forums—established for the sole purpose of giving support to members facing significant health or psychological problems,” the study says. It’s easy, given the trusting, intimate nature of support groups. They prey on those who are physically sick and, by proxy, emotionally vulnerable. By the time they’re discovered, they know their victims quite well. And when their duplicity is unmasked and that attentive support stops, they attack.
“You think that everyone cares about your journey and your bald little head. no one cares. they just want to watch you die.”