Crackdown planned on cruel Internet hoaxes
Charly was a little girl of six. She had cancer and fought it valiantly, as her mother Anna explained day after day on the Macmillan cancer website, a support group for sufferers and their loved ones.
“She is happy, lively, giggly and very easily excitable,” her mum messaged. “She is the first to laugh at anything and the last to stop.”
But last November, Charly lost her fight for life. There was an outpouring of grief on the Macmillan forum.
People wrote poems in Charly’s memory and painted their fingernails pink in accordance with her last wish.
Then someone discovered that the church where Charly’s funeral was to be held knew nothing of the child, nor of her mother.
Nor did anyone else. It was all a lie. The little girl and her mum lived only in the imagination of the online perpetrator, a teenage girl.
As outlined by the BBC last week, this was a classic case of Munchausen by Internet (MBI), first identified by Marc Feldman, an American psychiatrist, as far back as 2000.
Baron Munchausen was an 18th century German soldier and an extravagant liar whose name was given to behaviour in which people fabricate illness to gain attention and sympathy.
It is easier to do this using the anonymity of the Internet than to fool a live doctor with fake symptoms.
This was not the first time the Macmillan site had been hoaxed and Macmillan is not the only victim.
“It’s no exaggeration to say there’s an epidemic of MBI, which destroys the trust that underpins the forums,” a BBC investigator said.
Some of the hoaxes are extremely elaborate. Fraudsters seeking company, attention or excitement invent other players to people their dramas, like Charly’s mother, Anna.
These are known as sock puppets designed to give credence to the story. “Cara” on the west coast of America, claimed to have cancer, HIV, anorexia and heart problems.
She posted pictures of herself in a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask and feeding tube, and a video in which she struggled to speak.
When Cara was revealed as a hoaxer, she disappeared without trace. Kaylin Anderson, herself a cancer sufferer who had faithfully followed Cara’s blog, said she was devastated when she learned of the deception.
“It was such a bombshell. I read it at work and burst into tears.” Grief counsellor Pam Cohen likened the personal devastation afflicted on believing forum members to emotional rape.
But because no money is exchanged and laws are rarely broken, there is little that can be done legally against someone faking illness, even if they can be traced.
However, one step was taken in Britain last week. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said websites are to be forced to identify people who post defamatory messages online.
Known as trolls, these people seek out social media networks such as Facebook and post hurtful or tasteless responses to people with genuine problems.
A common form of abuse is to add a jeering hate message to a memorial site for a child who has died.
New government proposals say victims have a right to know who is behind malicious messages without the need for costly legal battles.
Nicola Brookes was falsely branded a paedophile and a drug dealer by trolls on Facebook. Last week she won a court order forcing Facebook to identify the trolls.
It will now reveal their IP addresses and she intends to prosecute the abusers. The new powers, to be added to the Defamation Bill, will make this process far less time-consuming and costly, the government said.
One man who is paying the price for cyber-hate is Liam Stacey, a student who made racist remarks on Twitter when a black footballer, Fabrice Muamba, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch.
He became a national hate figure, was sentenced to 56 days in prison and is banned from his university campus.
Stacey said he was drunk and deeply regretted his action. He said he had paid a huge price.
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