This is a guest post from kd kelly. kd kelly, aka dotlizard, who has learned a harsh lesson or two in her time on the internets, and wants to warn us about the dangers of social media as it relates to trusting relationships that end in lies, deception, and hurt. She’s a very social creature and is known as “dotlizard” pretty much everywhere.
Smile, I’m sending you some sunshine. Did your room just light up?
What can you say about a beautiful girl who died? In the words of noted internet hedonist Halcyon Styn, from a Flash animation he created in her honor: “I want to introduce you to the bravest person I know / She is a warrior of the finest sort / She shoots sunbeams from her fingertips / makes rainbows shine on sunny days / and leaves a wake of smiles in her path / Kaycee, warrior supreme”. Kaycee Nicole Swenson brought her sparkly brand of wholesome, flirtatious courage to a wide audience on the internet from 1999 through May 14, 2001, when her mother Debbie announced that Kaycee had passed away suddenly. At a family gathering in celebration of her remission from leukemia, sometime around sunset, a blood vessel burst in Kaycee’s chemotherapy-weakened body; she died peacefully in the arms of her loved ones.
I can tell you that when I read this news, I cried off and on the rest of the day. I can also tell you that Kaycee Nicole did not, technically, exist. She was created and portrayed entirely by her “mother”, Debbie Swenson, a middle-aged Midwestern housewife with some serious issues. For nearly two years, thousands followed and supported this fictional construct as she fought a deadly disease, an astonishing run when you consider the challenges involved. Kaycee was a chat host at the now-defunct CollegeClub.com, she spoke at length by phone with many of her internet friends, she emailed, she sent gifts, and she blogged vividly and poignantly through the horrors of her chemotherapy, often closing with her trademark, “Smile, I’m sending you some sunshine. Did your room just light up???” She was quoted in the New York Times, and some of the most prominent internet personalities of the day considered her a close friend, and somehow none of them realized that she was a complete work of fiction.
This is not to say that no one doubted her. As early as September, 2000, there were suggestions that Kaycee was too good to be true, but they were shouted down by her ardent supporters. The final, successful inquiry started with Kristin at online conversation site Threewayaction.com, then moved to Becky-Says’ blog. In February of 2001, Becky was expressing her skepticism, and as you can clearly hear in the defensive tone of her subsequent posts on the subject, her theories were not well-received. By May 18, the MetaFilter community dared to ask the same, very unpopular questions Becky and some of her friends had been asking for months. The delicate tone of the MeFi post is absolutely uncharacteristic of that site, which tells you just how touchy a subject this was. The initial responses were mild and respectful, and even with that there were vehement objections from close Kaycee friend, web host, and confidante the BWG (Big White Guy, Randall VanderWoning). No one wanted to believe this lovely, tragic young woman was a lie.
The investigation on MetaFilter lasted the weekend, 309 comments that moved through all the stages of grief while slowly and painstakingly picking apart the whole story. There were inconsistencies in the medical aspects of the story, conflicting personal data on various websites including some question as to age and birth date, and a dearth of pictures, some of which were clearly photoshopped to remove logos from sweatshirts. The majority of the comments still expressed a belief that there were basic truths within the story, even if they acknowledged that some details were obviously altered. Debbie Swenson, who’d been living with her deception for years, finally broke down early Sunday on May 20, 2001, posting a confession on her blog. The discussion moved to this thread, where the posts ranged from expressions of grace and forgiveness, to rage and calls for federal prosecution.
Kaycee Nicole never came out and asked for money, although the subject of the financial burdens of her illness did surface from time to time in her posts. She did receive many gifts, and emails circulated frequently taking up collections: “We want to fill her room with flowers, buy her a digital camera, a scanner, send her to Disney World”. People did donate, and when the hoax came to light federal authorities were notified, but in the end no charges were brought. Some said we lost our innocence in the Kaycee Nicole scandal, but there still exists a vast network of potential support out here in the social networks, and from time to time scammers succeed in tapping into this resource. This happened last week on the tightly knit community on Plurk, which has a unique and friendly atmosphere as Tamar described a few weeks ago.
It began with a Plurker calling herself LillyAnn, who projected an image of sweetness and light, punctuated with occasional vague references to difficult circumstances in her life. Her bio states she is “Lilly Calandrello, personal growth expert, MS, MA, Ph.D, is a relationship, marriage, family therapist, motivational & inspirational speaker, spiritual intuitive counselor, and author”. It does not list links to her various websites, however from time to time she would post links to recent posts on her StumbleUpon blog, many of which are also featured on her business website, Whispy.com, a portal which offers a wide variety of spiritual and psychic services. The blog and the business site both feature many lengthy inspirational articles, some of which were copied and pasted, word for word, from their original authors. No one suspected any of this until Lilly Ann, aka Barbara Calandrello, made a desperate appeal to her social media friends for financial assistance with life-threatening medical conditions for which she was uninsured and being denied treatment until she could pay. Someone claiming to be her 17 year old daughter, Gabrielle, posted using her accounts on Plurk and Twitter with an urgent appeal for donations, which were accepted through her PayPal account. Gabrielle then (claiming someone helped her) set up a ChipIn account, which was promoted on Digg and StumbleUpon by Lilly’s very close friend, DaveJazzHound. They collected a little more than $350 on the ChipIn page, and a number of PayPal donations including at least two for $100.
We may never know why someone who (by her own claims on Google Groups) was pulling in $5,000/month via counseling fees, affiliate marketing programs, and essays posted to paying websites such as Squidoo, would risk it all in a scheme that only raised a few hundred dollars. Her image as a successful professional advisor with lucrative hobbies like raising sea horses was in direct contradiction with this sudden, urgent need for cash, and this is one of the reasons it took several days for the questioning to begin. No one wanted to think that LillyBarb, whose online persona was always warm and supportive, brave and kind, would deceive her friends for money. By the second day, the threads on her Plurk profile were still overwhelmingly concerned and gracious towards her plight, but at least one person came out and said that she would love to send flowers, and where should these go? There was, of course, no answer to this, but it sparked a private discussion that lasted until three in the morning, during which a long list of contradictory information came to light.
By morning of the third day, there had been one thread deleted, and the remaining thread had shifted in focus from kindness and worry, to doubt and frustration. I was at this point in possession of a growing list of disturbing information, but to be honest I did not want to be “that person”. I did not have the luxury, as Becky did in her initial posts about Kaycee, to make pointed but nameless references and know that people in the know would recognize what I was talking about – the social media world has grown by several orders of magnitude since those days. I waited to see if anyone else would take up the task of summarizing and archiving the information, but by the end of day three I knew I had to do something.
So I did, but I did it in the most apologetic tone, practically falling over myself saying I was being a horrible mean awful cynical bitch and I was probably wrong but here’s the information anyway. Like the first person to suggest Kaycee was a fraud, I came forward with information I felt needed to be shared, but you can see in both cases, these posts were made cringing and bracing for attack. No one wants to step up and accuse someone of committing fraud, only to discover one has just kicked the poor sick person while they were down. In fact this trait is one of the main reasons people will always use these kinds of heart-tugging stories, because they know it’s really difficult to be “that person”.
In the days that followed, the evidence built up. More and more instances of plagiarism came to light, along more and more conflicts in the stories we’d been told. LillyBarb’s daughter Gabrielle, who had been very active in the early stages of the discussion, stopped responding to the posts. This 17 year old girl claimed she wasn’t allowed on the social networks, but knew how to navigate them with uncanny skill for a newbie, and knew when to fold up shop when the consensus had turned against her. At this writing the pretense is still active on StumbleUpon, and all of the plagiarized content is still up on the commerce-based websites. Apparently the scam is still far from over in spite of the little teapot tempest we’ve had about it over on Plurk. The energy to pursue this fraud has dissipated a little, and the truth is that the amounts involved are probably not enough to compel a criminal investigation. The story is still developing, but there is nowhere near the intensity directed at it than there was towards the far more high profile Kaycee Nicole case. And let’s face it, the level of fraud and malice necessary to catch the attention of the federal authorities is significantly more than what we’ve seen so far with LillyBarb.
So, if the feds aren’t going to protect you from imaginary dying teenagers and psychic kidney patients, who is? Well, you certainly cannot count on the crowd wisdom in social media, as we’ve seen this is very much subject to the fears of individuals to speak out against tragic figures and risk being wrong. The common theme of “I thought there was something wrong about this but I didn’t want to say anything” repeats over and over in these discussions, telling us that the majority would prefer to hold their suspicions waiting for someoene else to speak up. And we know that it feels good to be generous, to give back to the world when we are fortunate enough to be in that position. Psychologically, this creates an atmosphere in which it is very easy to be deceived. Even the short-lived LillyBarb fundraising drive caught a lot of very kind-hearted, generous people before anyone said a word against it. The only protection you really have is yourself.
Now rest assured I am not suggesting you become hardened and cynical, disbelieving everything by default. I could never do this myself so I would never recommend it to anyone else. My solution, which I came up with after the day I spent intermittently weeping over Kaycee Nicole, is that I consider each story I encounter on the internet to be neither true nor false until I have direct knowledge supporting one conclusion or the other. I like to think of this as “Schrodinger’s Blogger”, referring to the famous thought experiment which explains to us the rather odd concept of the quantum state, in which an event exists only as a waveform of possibilities (1 or 0) until it is observed, and that the act of observation changes the outcome of the experiment. In reality we know that this is not the case – the cat in the box is alive, or it is dead, whether or not we know the answer, but in quantum reality, it is both until the very instant we lift the lid and have a look.
So, when confronted with situations in which you are being asked to invest either your emotional energy, or your money, insist upon opening the box. Ask for proof. Demand it, and do not be put off if offense is taken and excuses offered – when someone is asking for you to commit something of yourself to help them, they forfeit their rights to anonymity and privacy. You have the right to know who you are helping and exactly what your help will do for them. Stand firm, and don’t be afraid to advocate for disclosure in public, encouraging others to do the same before they chip in. Realize that no one wants to be the first one to speak up, and the longer this goes on, the more profitable it is for the scammer.
There are many good and deserving people who may find themselves in a situation where they must ask a community of online friends for help, and for the most part they will be very open and forthcoming with proof of these circumstances. There is almost no conceivable reason why any honest person would withhold verification and insist that help be provided on faith alone. As long as you make the effort to suspend both believe and disbelief, and to accept and enjoy your online interactions at face value until such time as it becomes necessary to look deeper, you stand a decent chance of not being taken to the cleaners by sweet and eloquent liars. Be observant! Oh, and smile, I’m sending you some sunshine. Did your room just light up?