Münchausen by Internet

Münchausens Syndrome or Factitious Disorder is a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not actually sick. Over the past few years, this disorder has gained significant traction while duping millions. What might drive someone to lie about being sick online? And why would they continue to keep up the facade, often escalating it until they fake their own death or fake a miraculous recovery?

When we discuss Münchausens by Internet, we need to be careful and consider why one is driven to fake an illness on a case-by-case basis. Those with Münchausens, now classified as Factitious Disorder, may not be seeking external rewards, but rather emotional support, sympathy, acceptance or attention. That said, there are still others who fake an illness due to more malicious motivators such as financial gains — categorized as Malingering — or control, deception, manipulation or narcism.

Münchausens by Internet is a complicated disorder, as those who fake an illness online often receive followers, likes, donations, and attention — sometimes to news-worthy magnitudes. In these cases, it’s difficult to determine if these individuals are motivated for those exact outcomes, or rather these are mere outcomes of other primary intentions. This uncertainty convolutes the diagnosis.

Not everyone who fakes an illness online would be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. But for those who do fake their illness online without external rewards, we should note an unfortunate irony: many of these individuals are in fact sick themselves to a certain degree.

In these cases, childhood or traumatic experiences, or feelings of low self-worth may be the deepest underlying causes of this behavior.

If one feels they are not receiving the support, acceptance or attention they desire, they’ll behave accordingly to receive it. If and when they do receive what they’re seeking, the behavior may then become conditioned. In other words, one may learn that more outrageous or miraculous updates elicit larger responses, prompting them to escalate their stories.

Estimating the prevalence of Münchausens by Internet is quite difficult as we only become aware of its existence when individuals are exposed or come clean. So for every case we learn of, we must presume there are others flying under our radar, undetected.

There’s been a fascinating pendulum sway lately in how many are attracting attention online. One theory is that we’ve reached “peak brag.” People have become tired of scrolling through the glossy vacation pictures and astounding life accomplishments. This material has become table stakes. So in order to cut through today, we’re seeing more radical transparency and opening-up. Posts about struggles with mental health, failures, rough times, etc. are shared as a compelling and thumb-stopping contrast to perfection, which once caught our attention. To this point, it’s also why we’ve seen traction with platforms like Snapchat and Finsta profiles, which both promote more authentic and revealing material.

So in this landscape, it make sense why we may see more posts about sickness, but determining what’s real and what’s fictitious or exaggerated further complicates detection and diagnosis. Social media offers more control over how one presents themselves online. Anonymity or the ability to manufacture entirely fake identities is effortless, allowing anyone to create a persona, blog and crowdfunding campaign overnight.

Another tailwind contributing to the prevalence of this phenomenon is that we’re living through an age of media illiteracy and reality manipulation. Many people today are unfortunately incapable of detecting misinformation, distinguishing fact from fiction. This makes the identification of contradictions, inconsistencies and falsehoods in stories challenging for some. Because the creator is capable of carrying on their normal, healthy life away from the keyboard, we’re truly unaware of who around is living a fake story-line online.

As online tools affecting our identity and anonymity continue to evolve, it’s unlikely that Münchausen by Internet stops anytime soon.



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Matt Klein

Matt Klein

Cultural Theorist + CyberPsychologist + Strategist. Trends Lead at Reddit. Newsletter analyzing the overlooked: Zine.KleinKleinKlein.com