Internet Urban Legend: How the Whole “Faking Cancer on the Internet” Thing Started

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Last week, Reddit users were enraged to discover that a poster known as Lucidending had lied about having cancer. In the forum’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum, Lucidending claimed to have only 51 hours to live; he planned to overdose via Oregon’s laws of assisted suicide. What followed was a weekend of intimate conversation in which Lucidending played by the AMA rules and shared details about his life, in the hopes of leaving some sort of legacy. Some people even donated money to charities in Lucidending’s name.

Imagine the anger of his fellow Redditors when his lies began to unravel in response to simple questions and details that he had gotten wrong. Lucidending has since retreated, though Gawker staff writer Adrien Chen caused a stir when he claimed to be Lucidending. He’s not; the Twitter confession turned out to be an ill-timed joke. But he did get a Gawker piece out of it, on Redditors' notorious skepticism: Last month they hurled accusations of fraud at Maya Gilsey, who legitimately was trying to raise money for cancer research, but fell for Lucidending’s cliches. Whether the readers bought into the hoax even a little, or actually poured emotion into that AMA thread, they’re probably all feeling pretty dumb.

These kinds of stunts are becoming more and more prevalent on Internet forums and fan communities. In June 2010, Lady Gaga herself got hoodwinked into tweeting to Ana, a Little Monster who was allegedly dying from leukemia. (Her “brother” @JoelxSoul corresponded with Gaga on Ana’s behalf but then suddenly disappeared.)

The scam prompted me to remember a similar incident from 2002, when I was a big participant in the ReBoot message boards. I wrote about this topic in greater detail at my old job, but here are the pertinent facts: As with the Lady Gaga debacle, a poster wrote on behalf of Libra Phoenix, a 16-year-old suffering from heart and lung cancer who feebly asked the cancelled cartoon’s creators to make new episodes before she passed away. It was admittedly a desperate move, but while her illness couldn’t revive the show, she did get a signed poster from the cast. Then only a few months later, someone posted to the boards that Libra Phoenix didn’t exist, and the whole thing had been a ruse.

Finally, I was recently reading Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, a book written by Sherry Turkle around 1995, right as Internet life and multiple online identities were starting to flourish. Turkle introduced the Internet urban legend of “the case of the electronic lover”: A man called “Alex” logs on to a text-based community under the identity of “Joan”, a disfigured woman. Joan cultivates friendships — and, strangely enough, some lesbian role-playing — with other women online, but when her friends and admirers want to meet her, Alex decides that Joan has to die.

From that point, the hoax is quickly discovered when Joan's “husband” (another identity) is unable to provide accurate details about which hospital to send flowers to, and the story begins to crumble. The women are disgusted and feel violated, Alex disappears, etc. And like with all legends, this scam seems to have evolved to its current format: Centered more in the world of fandom, validated by Twitter activity and fan art/fanfic, with the con artists (or as they're known today, trolls) seeking money and/or validation by the celebrities in question.

Funny how it started with sexual conquest and has come around to a different sort of gratification, that of “the little people” getting acknowledged by those they admire. Ironically, it's not the celebrities who get hurt — come on, they can't care that much — but rather the scammer's peers who, like the Redditors, put aside their hard-won skepticism to welcome someone into their fold.