Now I Know - Now I Know: Münchausen by Internet

Here's a story that, I think if it happened today, may have been much quicker to resolve (and likely much messier), in large part due to Twitter and TikTok. I originally shared this story in 2012; I'm re-sharing today because the New York Times article that started the cascade hit today in 2010. -- Dan
 

Münchausen by Internet

On August 10, 2000, the New York Times ran an article (here) looking into a new item that college kids were bringing to campus with them — computers. Computers, the Times noted, were fast becoming the most important item on a would-be freshman’s checklist — the machines were replacing stereos (this was the before iPods and smartphones), answering machines, and to some degree, even televisions. As part of the article, the Times interviewed, by phone, a high school senior named Kaycee Swenson, who was active on an early social network (under the name Kaycee Nicole, with Nicole being her middle name) called CollegeClub.com:

Kaycee Swenson, a high school senior in Wichita, Kan., who took several courses at her local college last year, said she talked to people online every day, most of whom were not at her campus. But she said she also hung out with friends in the physical world, listening to music and playing basketball. “You have to balance it,” she said.

Kaycee was an easy choice for the Times to include in its profile — she was ahead of the curve, living an active life online. Beyond her activity on CollegeClub.com, Kaycee was an early blogger. At around the same time the Times article hit, she told an online friend, Randall van der Woning, that she was a leukemia survivor. Soon after, the cancer came back, and van der Woning, even further ahead of the curve, set her up with a blog (lost to time) so she could document her battle with leukemia.

For months, Kaycee — with the help of her mother Debbie — told her story via a series of typically daily blog posts. Over the course of about two years, she amassed  “millions” of visitors to her site, per the Guardian. She received untold numbers of get well cards from well-wishers, and spent time talking to online friends over the phone (including talking to van der Woning a number of times). But on May 15, 2001, Kaycee’s battle with leukemia officially ended. That day, Debbie Swenson, in tears, called van der Woning to tell him that her daughter had died, unexpectedly from a ruptured aneurysm, the day before. Kaycee Nicole, as she was known online, would not make it to college after all.

But, as it turns out, she wouldn’t have anyway. Because Kaycee Nicole never had cancer. Or even a computer. Kaycee Nicole never existed — she was a figment of her mother’s imagination, carried out online.

A few days after Kaycee’s final blog post hit the Web, skepticism followed, as odd inconsistencies came to light. Followers of Kaycee’s plight, many using the community weblog MetaFilter, wanted to send condolence cards, flowers, etc., to her family, but Debbie informed them that there was no valid address to send stuff to. This was particularly strange because Kaycee was able to receive (and in fact, responded to) mail sent to her before her death. The MetaFilter community started piecing together more details in a discussion thread and other online communities and publications joined in. Some protested, most notably van der Woning, who emphatically asked the community to stop and assured the community Kaycee was real. But the momentum had taken over.

Collectively, they noted that Debbie told the world that Kaycee was cremated and her memorial service came and went, both within just two or three days after her apparent death. While many had spoken to Kaycee over the phone, no one could find one of her followers who had ever met her in person. And the above-quoted Times article provided another clue — her last name. Except for that article, Kaycee was only known by her online moniker of Kaycee Nicole, never “Kaycee Swenson.”

Emboldened, the Kaycee Nicole skeptics worked together in hopes of finding something definitive. They succeeded. A now-defunct FAQ (archived here) of the Kaycee Nicole hoax summed up the critical piece of evidence:

[A] live chat room for discussing developments was set up. Work was very collaborative and productive in this environment. Additional Kaycee web pages were found. These pages had more photos. One of these photos clearly showed the school mascot and that Kaycee was #10 on the basketball team. By putting together the mascot in the photo with the city the Swensons were originally from, the school where the photos originated was tracked down. A women’s basketball roster for the school in 1999 listed #10 as Julie . Someone immediately typed the full name into google, and the first link returned was quite eerie. It was Julie’s player profile from the college she attends. And clear as day was a picture of “Kaycee Nicole” staring back from the screen.

Soon after, Debbie Swenson came clean. On May 19th, she called van der Woning and admitted that the entire story was a lie. Kaycee had been created years earlier by her daughter, and when Debbie found out, instead of shutting down the fake child’s account, she adopted it as her own. Massive outrage ensued and van der Woning, who was perhaps the greatest victim of the duping, deleted Kaycee’s blog. The FBI briefly investigated the matter, but concluded that “it would be hard to prove that a crime had occurred.”

In the end, Debbie Swenson explained that she crafted Kaycee out of three people she had met, each of whom died from cancer. But she never explained why she created this fake daughter many others grew to care for.



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Bonus fact: The history of the Internet is filled with hoaxes, but the so-called “Microsoft Hoax” is widely regarded to be the first highly successful one. In 1994, a fake Associated Press story traveled through the tubes, asserting that Microsoft (which was a few years from being on the wrong end of anti-trust litigation) was acquiring a controlling stake in the Catholic Church. The article, available here, argued that the combined “company” would be able to “make religion easier and more fun for a broader range of people,” according to a faux quote from Bill Gates. Due to calls from confused consumers, Microsoft issued a formal statement denying the merger on December 16, 1994.

From the Archives: The Pride of Georgia Tech: The legend of George P. Burdell.
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