Warrior Eli, Internet Fraud, and Stolen Pictures
Last week, Tertia posted about the Warrior Eli story, namely because her children’s pictures were utilized in the hoax. Hoax. I actually don’t know if the story is fully fiction, a fake life and a fake death for Dana Dirr. I spent the weekend trying to reconstruct the chain of events and characters since so much of what had been posted online is now gone excepted in cached form. Combing through deleted Facebook pages and pictures taken from other people’s blogs and Flickr accounts, I tried to understand how someone could create a dynamic, somewhat-involved Internet trail that is… fiction?
It began with two people… or characters (depending on how much of this is fabricated — I truly don’t know): Dana and JS Dirr. The couple had Facebook accounts linked to numerous friends, who may also be fictional. They also had ten children (with an eleventh on the way), one of whom was a son named Eli who was experiencing childhood cancer. Dana connected with other mothers blogging about their children’s experiences with childhood cancer.
I am not sure how many people interacted with Dana Dirr prior to her death, or whether they only became sucked into the story during the events on Mother’s Day. (There were definitely people who followed Dana Dirr’s story prior to the death because donations to cancer organizations in Eli’s name stretch back several months.) Last weekend, Dana Dirr died in a car accident, but not before delivering the child she was pregnant with at the time. The story made the rounds on Facebook — it was simply too cruel for people to comprehend. A family who was already dealing with the tragedy of childhood cancer had now lost their mother — on Mother’s Day. The family insisted they needed nothing but if people were moved to do something, they could make a donation to one of several childhood cancer organizations, including Alex’s Lemonade Stand.
I only learned about the Dirr family because two of Dana Dirr’s children were portrayed with pictures of Tertia’s children from So Close. I’ve read Tertia’s blog for about six years and have watched her twins grow up in photographs. So what is truth and what is fiction in this story remains to be seen, though what is fact is that the photographs of two of Dana Dirr’s children — Lily and Jade — are an infertility blogger’s children, Kate and Adam. And in poking around, other people have stepped up to claim ownership of other photos used on Dana Dirr’s pages.
Since people started noticing their images stolen, all of the pages from the Warrior Eli Facebook page to their fundraising page on Alex’s Lemonade Stand have been removed, which doesn’t bode well from a truthfulness standpoint. And that’s about all I’ve been able to figure out from reading the various blog posts by people who were sucked into Dana Dirr’s story. It doesn’t have the closure yet of a Beccah Beuschausen nor does it have an explanation for how the images of others ended up being the visual aids for someone real, therefore, the story lingers in truthfulness purgatory. Who really knows what to believe?
Fraud on the Internet is hardly a new invention. We’ve seen the same scenario come up time and time again: a tragic story (more often than not involving a child and/or a woman) gains traction on the Internet. No red flags are raised because the only things asked of those emotionally involved are prayers, attention, or donations to a well-known organization such as the American Cancer Society. At some point, the story takes a very upsetting twist and people start feeling as if something is amiss. And then it is revealed that the entire situation was fabricated — there is usually no mother and/or child at all, and if there is, the mother and/or child is not exactly in the situation portrayed. From Little April Rose to Kaycee Nicole* and other Münchausen by Internet cases. The fraud is usually perpetrated not for financial gain, but for the attention, support, and care the person creating the hoax receives. The situation may not be real, but the love flowing towards the fictional story is. And real attention, support, and care are all desired human wants (and some would say needs) that cannot be bought.
Some people respond that the damage done by fraud on the Internet is hardly on par with the damage inflicted by people such as Bernie Madoff who destroyed lives with his scheme. But just because life savings aren’t wiped out doesn’t mean that Internet fraud doesn’t inflict irreparable damage to the trust that is the foundation of the online world. From trusting WebMD to provide us with useful information akin to what we’d gain from our face-to-face doctor to building friendships over time-space via blogs, we spend every single one of our online minutes walking a trust tightrope without a safety net in place.
When we’re in the face-to-face world, our body actually has a physical reaction to things that don’t seem right. But the Internet is a medium that restricts almost all of our senses from in-taking useful information. Imagine conducting your face-to-face relationships without your sight, smell, taste, or touch. The only thing you’d have is the ability to hear without tone or inflection — the equivalent to words on a screen. The Internet places us at a very large disadvantage, and therefore, all we have to go on is that foundation of trust. And when it is broken, we realize just how vulnerable we are every time we accept information from a computer screen.
Even knowing this, some of my closest friendships have come out of the Internet. And I trust them. Even knowing that there are people in the world who would take someone else’s photographs and construct an online existence for themselves out of them. I can’t really explain how or why I can make this leap beyond pointing out the fact that there are deceitful people who exist in the face-to-face world, and yet even after our core is shaken from their deeds, we still are able to love, to trust, to connect with others afterward. Because we need to as humans.
I think it’s important to go into the Internet with an open heart as well as the remembrance that you are unable to utilize so many of the senses you use in your face-to-face world to make those gut decisions. And therefore, proceed with caution.
* In a heart-stopping moment as I wrote this post, I found something that Theresa Erickson wrote back in 2009. Completely missed that until now, but it makes the surrogacy scandal that came to light last year all the more chilling.