How good of a writer are you? Could you invent an entire internet persona and create a hoax that millions of people would follow and believe in? Kaycee Nicole was a young girl who has developed incurable leukemia or was she? Find out how an adult woman, named Debbie Swenson, confessed to creating (and killing off) a well-loved teenage internet character.
The Kaycee Nicole Leukemia Hoax
It was the year 1998, and Debbie Swenson was a mother with a daughter in middle school. Her daughter, Kelli Burke and several friends, created an online web page for someone called “Kaycee Nicole”. To create the imaginary character, they posted photographs of a basketball player from their small town of Gracemont, Oklahoma.
In the 2010 census, Gracemont only had 318 residents, and back in 1998, the population was even smaller. Perhaps boredom was part of the reason why the group of young girls created a composite character, but they soon lost interest. When Debbie Swenson discovered what the girls had done, she began to continue rather than stop a storyline. While the girls moved on from their catfish scheme, Debbie Swenson dug into the life of “Kaycee”.
In the year 2000, Kaycee, who was Debbie Swenson writing as a teenager, told her internet “friend” Randall Van der Woning, that she had Leukemia. Luckily, she explained, it was in remission. Van der Woning was empathetic, and when the disease returned, he suggested that he help Kaycee create a blog through which she could share her health woes. Kaycee agreed and the blog “Living Colours” commenced in August of that same year.
Debbie’s writing was moving and vivid. The blog was updated frequently, near-daily, and talked about Kaycee’s health struggles and hospitalizations. To keep the story simple, Kaycee’s mother was supposedly Debbie, who would also write in the blog when “Kaycee” was “unwell”.
One early entry read:
I'm beginning a new exciting journey ... into my survival. I want to win! I'll fight to the finish!
This attitude of strength during hardship was endearing to readers of the blog, who found Kaycee’s message moving and inspirational. Soon, what started as a small blog had reached millions of readers worldwide and had received many online recommendations.
”Kaycee” wasn’t just a remote internet character, many fans spoke to her on the phone, including her online friend and blog administrator. In April 2001, Kaycee even agreed to have an in-person visit with Van der Woning, once she returned from a vacation to the ocean. Her liver was failing, and he feared it would be his last chance to meet her.
However, since Kaycee’s character was fictional, Debbie had to invent an excuse before Van der Woning could complete his trip. Therefore, on May 15, 2001, a sobbing Debbie told Woning that Kaycee had passed away from a surprise brain aneurysm. The final blog post about Kaycee’s death was posted on May 16th and read:
Thank you for the love, the joy, the laughter and the tears. We shall love you always and forever. Kaycee Nicole passed away May 14, 2001, at the age of 19.
Naturally, mourners, who had followed Kaycee’s story, wanted an address to send gifts, cards, and condolences. It was the savvy of internet sleuths, who were unable to find any official documentation of Kaycee’s death, that the hoax began to unravel. Soon, mounting evidence confirmed that the well-loved Kaycee never existed.
A user on Metafilter, where Kaycee’s identity and story were being questioned and debated, traced her photographs back to a particular high school and even searched out the jersey number that Kaycee had worn. To everyone’s shock, the girl pictured in the pictures was never sick and was not called Kaycee Nicole.
Debbie Swenson knew the truth could come out and called Randall Van der Woning. She lied again, telling him that Kaycee was a foster child and not her biological daughter. A trusted friend, Van der Woning kept her disclosure a secret, at her request, but mounting evidence led Debbie to finally break down and admit the truth to him in an email.
On May 20th, Van de Woning posted the email’s contents, which described Debbie’s online antics and lies. Those who have followed Swenson’s story call it “Munchausen by Internet”. Real cases of Munchausen Syndrome occur in conjunction with mental disorders, through which someone invents that they or someone in their family has a physical or mental illness, when in fact they do not. It can result in severe problems for the person who has it and by “proxy”, if someone is impacted by their caregiver having the disorder.
The local police in Debbie’s town investigated the catfishing blog and scheme and passed the case to the F.B.I. The F.B.I.’s investigation found no prosecutable financial acceptance of gifts or a dollar amount which would have led to charges.
While it is illegal to accept financial payments and gifts for a persona, it is legal to create an internet persona, and Debbie tried to justify her actions to The New York Times, She said, “A lot of people have problems. I know I helped a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”
Kaycee Nicole’s fans and followers probably disagreed, Randall Van der Woning was one of the most upset since he visibly supported Kaycee during her trials. Has anything like this ever happened to you? How would you feel if an online friend was tricking you? Maybe you wonder if a loved one is lying about their health?
Find out if the people you trust are who they claim to be, or if they are making up an online identity by faking their health history! A photograph search helped take down Kaycee Nicole’s story, would a photo search do the same for you?
Visit Social Catfish and pull the wool from your eyes. Find out the truth, before your heart is broken or your wallet emptied.