Faking a death online
Sunday, May 20, 2001 by Dave Winer.
In 1938, Orson Welles began a radio show with this famous sentence. "We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own."
The next day the NY Times reported "A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells's fantasy, 'The War of the Worlds,' led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York."
A fascinating story, similar to the War of the Worlds panic, though not on the same scale, and probably not playful, unwound on the Web today. A hoax involving hundreds or thousands of members of the weblogging community was uncovered by a reporter named Saundra Mitchell. The hoax is unravelling now in fascinating real time.
Here's what appeared to happen. A 19-year old woman named Kaycee started a weblog to write about her terminal leukemia. On May 16 readers of Kaycee's site learned that she had died two days earlier, from her mother, Debbie, and a friend, Randall van der Woning, who lives in Hong Kong.
On Thursday and Friday, Ms. Mitchell wrote a fantastic couple of pieces, entitled "Your Guide to Faking a Life and Death Online" and "All Satire Aside," in which she explained her theory of how the hoax was stitched together, and provided facts to substantiate the theory.
A chilling quote from her Friday piece. "JournalCon and whatnot are coming up, and a lot of people would likely have wanted to meet her there, considering her tales of recovery. I suspect that the person behind all this suddenly realized just how out of control this had gotten. They certainly couldn't produce a real live girl (no matter how miraculously recovered she allegedly was) and so they killed her."
Then the most interesting thread I've seen in a long time developed on MetaFilter, including posts from van der Woning, and the faked death fully unraveled in the space of a few hours. A post from someone who claimed to be Debbie admitted it was a hoax, followed by a post from van der Woning, forgiving her. It's pretty clear that the story hasn't fully unraveled yet.
We know that Kaycee wasn't real, but the emotions her reported death exposed were. How many of the players in this story are real? I don't know. I know I'm a real person, and that's about all I know for sure, and sometimes.. ;->