Munchausen syndrome is probably something you’ve heard of without knowing a great deal about it. Arguably its most famous incarnation in popular culture was in the movie Fight Club, where Tyler Durden would pretend to be sick in order to attend help groups for people with that illness.
It should be noted that Munchausen syndrome is different to malingering, where you might fake an illness to gain money or to avoid being sent to the front line. With Munchausen, the faker enjoys the indirect benefits that come from being ‘ill’, such as being cared for.
It should probably come as no surprise that there is an online version of this. People pretend to have an illness in order to gain a particular place within their online community. This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretence could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.
There has been some interesting research into this curious disease. It provides a number of ways for community managers to spot people who are faking illness for their own ends.
- Posts consistently duplicating material in other posts, books, or health-related websites.
- Characteristics of the supposed illness emerging as caricatures.
- Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.
- Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.
- Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.
- Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.
- Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual having identical patterns of writing.
I’m not sure it’s something I’ve ever come across in any of the communities I’ve been involved with, but I’d be fascinated to hear any stories if you’ve come across this in your own communities.