18. December 2015

Victoria Schwartz describes an Internet phenomenon that has received very little public attention to date: people who become victims of emotional connections to fake identities in social networks.

By Victoria Schwartz

Barack Obama visited Berlin in 2013. A joint press conference with Angela Merkel was held in the context of this visit. The public was expecting Merkel to make a statement on PRISM, the NSA and surveillance programs. Instead, the German Chancellor came out with a now legendary sentence, which at the time induced a ‘flame war’, a surge of derision, gloating and serious criticism: “The Internet is virgin territory for us all”.

What Merkel had presumably wanted to say was that we currently have no solutions at hand when it comes to sounding out online freedom and security. However, the Internet community perceived her comment as illustrating an embarrassing backwardness in the face of a medium that has long since become a matter of fact to the majority of people. Nowadays there are few who are either unwilling or unable to use the resource – be it for work or private matters.

Close to 80% of German adults spend more than 90 minutes online on nearly six days a week. Half of the adult population of Germany also accesses Internet content from their cell phones, in which case the time spent online jumps to over three hours on more than six days a week (online study carried out in 2014 by German public broadcasting companies ARD and ZDF). Among the younger generation, the figure is even higher: 98 percent of 14 to 24 year olds use the Internet and are constantly available via smartphone or tablet; they no longer differentiate between online and offline times (German Institute for Confidence and Safety Online under-25s study on children, adolescents and young adults in the digital world, 2014).

All of us, whether we are users from day one or young adults who grew up with the Internet, see ourselves as media literate. We are familiar with the Internet. We definitely don’t see it as virgin territory! But is it possible that this feeling of familiarity may be deceiving us? Can we really imagine the full extent to which the Internet will be used to manipulate us, both as individuals and as a society, in the long term? How do we handle information about fake messages and identities already being used for manipulative purposes today? Or the knowledge that fake information, likes and comments are being posted in order to considerably influence public opinion – and in turn social and political trends? Can we really afford to see fake identities as irrelevant to us?

Now, however, I would like to turn the reader’s attention away from the “manipulation of the masses” and towards a type of manipulation that is conducted on a more intimate stage.

Our everyday navigation of the online world means that we also come into contact with strangers. Whether networking on business platforms or exchanging views with others in forums, responding to tweets or commenting on Facebook posts or photos on Instagram, we don’t always know the people we are communicating with. On the one hand this is fantastic, because this is how global networking functions, yet on the other hand it carries risks.

The fact that we seldom doubt the identity of users with a large number of friends and followers is understandable. But what if it still turns out that the person does not exist and the majority of their friends and followers are also fakes?

For many months during 2012/13 I was myself in contact with a man named Kai, whom I had become acquainted with via Twitter and whose existence I did not doubt for a long time because he had a complex social media network made up of family members, friends and followers who interacted with him and made him appear absolutely believable. We became friends, chatted and eventually spoke on the phone almost daily. Our exchange was interesting and profound and over time gave rise to a deep emotional bond. Kai was from Münster but was staying in the US at the time. He began sending letters, postcards and expensive presents from there. 

It seemed self-evident to me that we would see each other as soon as he returned to Germany. It was only when this first meeting was pushed back time and again that I began to wonder, and in the end it turned out that I had fallen victim to what I call a ‘realfake’: a person who had used innumerable stolen photographs and videos to create online accounts that were impossible to distinguish from real users. This person used 24 bogus Facebook profiles, all connected to each other, three blogs, seven fake Instagram, eight Twitter and two Soundcloud accounts with many friends and followers. Some of these accounts were made as early as the year 2000. I began to carry out intensive research and finally found the person behind all of this: a female native German doctor of psychology who lives in the US …

I found neither studies nor workable information on this fascinating topic in the German-speaking world, and therefore decided to investigate more closely this type of fake, who does not look for financial rewards but emotional ones instead – which makes their motives so much more difficult to grasp.

I now operate the website www.realfakes.net, providing information and support to affected persons. Some of the people reaching out to me through my site are still in a “relationship” with a realfake, while others have experienced this kind of thing in the past and are finding it hard to get closure, as they have never been able to solve the mystery surrounding the other person. Many feel so unsettled by the experience that they still have profound psychological issues: They speak of suicidal thoughts, depression, a complete loss of trust and anxiety.

The public is mostly unaware of this phenomenon and it is generally not taken seriously. Yet the estimated number of unreported cases seems to be huge.

My book “Wie meine Internet-Liebe zum Albtraum wurde - Das Phänomen Realfakes” (“How my Internet love affair turned into a nightmare – the realfakes phenomenon”) was published in October 2015. The first part of the book relates my own experience, while the second provides extensive information on the topic.