Everyone dissembles on the internet, whether little white lies on dating sites or whoppers on anonymous forums. The odd harmless bit of embroidery in real life helps to keep conversation sparkling, or avoid awkward moments. But, increasingly, untruths are used online not just as social lubricant, but to fish for sympathy and attention, and even, in some extreme cases, for money.
In fact, you can make quite the career out of playing the victim online, particularly if you have an ideology to hawk. Recently, I’ve been reporting on a controversy in the video games industry known as “GamerGate,” which was kicked off originally by questions surrounding the claims of two feminists whose statements did not, said critics, bear scrutiny.
Yet both women raised large amounts of money on the basis of claims they were victimised or harassed. Despite one woman having a long track record of dishonesty, bloggers repeated her claims without question, and she now enjoys a permanent income of over $3,000 a month without even having to get out of bed.
And crowdfunding site GoFundMe, a “do it yourself” fundraising site that people use to raise money for anything from school fees to holidays, is becoming saturated with politically-charged entreaties from people who claim that a combination of unfortunate personal circumstances and “government cuts” have forced them into penury.
Sob stories are one of the primary currencies of the internet, because they appeal to kind but credulous people – which, let’s face it, is most of us – because it’s easier to tell lies when you’re not looking your victim in the face, and because nobody wants to be the guy who asks for “proof” of another person’s suffering.
Perhaps we should, though. The same instinct that propels us to donate to charity when we see an emotionally manipulative ad on TV is at play online, except, because anyone can now become a charity on behalf of themselves and use social media to promote their cause, space has been opened up for fraudsters, liars and people who perhaps don’t need the money so much as they want attention for their causes or for themselves.
No longer do people give $500 to scientists curing cancer, or protecting children, once a year. (Charities themselves are relaxed about that, because they get so much money from the government these days.) Instead, ordinary people pepper their lives with little $5 bursts, each time they see a “worthy mission” or suffering person on social media.
It’s easy to see why. Giving makes us feel good, and in today’s attention-deficit, piecemeal culture, we prefer 100 hits of dopamine and self-righteousness spread throughout the year than we do one big burst of smugness. But it’s one thing to give to a charity or donate to a bike ride or half-marathon in aid of cancer, or sick kids. It’s quite another thing to just hand people money on the basis of implausible stories.
Yet people do – so, predictably, unscrupulous sociopaths are taking advantage, because with such ready access to gullible people and payment systems such as PayPal, which make it easy to handle large volumes of small payments, almost anyone can set themselves up as a person in need and start soliciting cash from an online profile.
Some profiles don’t ring true, and are fairly obviously fake. Others have a suspicious whiff of politics or ideology about them. Still others are probably real, but lay the pathos and political posturing on so thick it can be hard to take them seriously. Take the GoFundMe profile I’m currently reading. The person, a transsexual woman, says she wants money to go back to university. She had a cancer scare (she says she was “diagnosed with cancer” but later admits she doesn’t have it, so presumably this was a slip of the tongue). So did her father and grandmother, at the same time.
She became “depressed” after reading an article in a newspaper she did not like. She is disabled, and, she says, unable to walk or urinate properly after surgery readers are led to conclude was gender reassignment. “Queer Resistance,” a movement of gay people against government cuts, is heavily plugged in her profile.
The strategies used by people who want free money from strangers are working. The woman above raised £1,693, £443 more than her target of £1,250. Another woman on the site, who describes herself as a “queer babe,” says her workplace “docked her pay by 50%” for “being disabled.” She raised £2,500.
Both profiles were shot through with sharply-written, politicised complaints about government policy and contained eyebrow-raising claims. But, with the help of a few tweets from well-followed journalists, punters were roped in to helping people on the basis of a few paragraphs of purple prose. The very people who fact-check for a living – reporters – are perhaps the worst offenders when it comes to sharing around pleas for cash.
Is it going too far to suggest that many of these identical-looking profiles are somehow co-ordinated, perhaps benefiting people who look very little like the women in the profiles? That’s the subject of a forthcoming investigation by my colleague, Jeremy Wilson.
Whatever the truth behind individual online begging bowls, social and financial incentives on the internet run counter to truthfulness and integrity, which explains the explosion of manipulative entreaties in recent years.
In other words, if you shout loud enough – particularly as a member of a minority, or even just posing as one – you can garner sympathy, attention and hard cash. And you do even better if you fabricate or ham up abuse, harassment and threats you supposedly received. Not quite the brave new online world we were promised, is it?