Chonky, fluffy, thicc: inside the internet’s obsession with fat cat on diets

More social media accounts are dedicating themselves to specific chonky the bag of cats and their weight-loss efforts

They’re chonky, they’re fluffy, they’re thicc and body pawsitive. They’re round sons, floofs and absolute units.

The new animal trend on the internet celebrates the rotund and plump, with social media users focusing on the adorableness of a cat’s rounded cheeks, a hamster’s many rolls, a dog’s rounded shape and a raccoon’s voluptuous volume.

The Instagram account Chonky Animals has more than 409,000 adherents while the Round Boys and Round Animals accounts top out at more than 455,000 and 487,000, respectively. The Facebook group, This Cat is Chonky, has more than 395,000 members and hundreds of new posts each day.

The trend creates concerns about overfeeding and maintaining a pet unhealthy for the sake of cuteness. While humans can decide if they are healthy at every sizing, animals cannot , nor do they have the ability to tell their owners if they need help. But it has also inspired a wholesome movement toward building sure these animals remain healthy, as well as cute. More and more accounts are now dedicating themselves to specific chonky cats- and their weight-loss efforts.

” A heavy cat is pretty adorable ,” said Mike Wilson, one of the owners of Bronson, a cat who was 33 pounds when he was adopted and is now 23 pounds, one year later.” A big cat on a diet is a guilt-free way to follow an obese cat .”

In addition to Bronson, who has more than 214,000 followers, there’s Bruno Bartlett, the gray polydactyl cat that likes to stand on his hind legs, and his brother, Carlo. On Facebook, Fat Laila’s efforts at fat camp are lovingly documented, as well as her missteps- when she snuck into the closet to steal treats one night.

” There’s a reason why the internet is so preoccupied with fat cats ,” said Lauren Paris, the owner of Bruno and Carlo. “They’re so cute.”

Paris felt drawn to Bruno when stories about a “thicc” cat up for adoption went viral last year. She and her friend wrote a song, Give Me That Fat Cat, ensuring not just the adoption, but Bruno’s Instagram stardom.

However, upon session him, she knew his claim to fame – his chub- could not stay.

” He was so adorable, but he was able to barely move ,” Paris said.” The shelter was doing the best they could do, but he lived in a room with other cats and he would just eat their food .”

Bronson
Bronson has now slimmed down to 23 pounds. Photograph: Courtesy of Mike Wilson

Because Bruno was already so public, his weight-loss journey became public as well. Paris posts when Bruno loses a pound, along with tongue-in-cheek hashtags such as” real cats have curves “. She posts pictures of him gazing longingly at human food, or meowing in the background to cooking bacon.

” I’m not going to lie, I think fat cats are cute, but not so cute that they shouldn’t be on a diet ,” Paris said.” Bruno, we look back at old videos of him and we guess,’ oh he’s so cute ,’ but he’s really cute now and he’s going to live a lot longer. That’s style better .”

Wilson and Bronson’s other owner, Megan Hanneman, felt the same way when it came to Bronson’s health. When they met him, he had to lie down to eat.” He merely was like a giant swollen ball ,” Wilson said.

” He was three years old and he weighed 33 pounds ,” Hanneman said.” The standard cat weighs like nine pounds, so he was about the dimensions of the three fairly big cats at three years old. He couldn’t move around .”

Bronson used to cry for more food before Wilson and Hanneman switched him to a wet diet that was less caloric but more filling. Even worse was when he would coax them awake for feedings.” At 3 in the morning, he’d come over and lay on us and purr in our faces ,” Hanneman said.

They enjoy posting about his weight-loss journey because cat weight loss is difficult. If cats lose weight too quickly, they can develop fatty liver disease, and typically sleep 18 hours a day and are hard to exercise, said Shari O’Neill, the chief shelter veterinarian at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Cat are also grazers, so it’s hard to measure out how much food they need to get through a day.

” It’s been a lot of fun sharing tips-off on losing weight and things we’re doing with Bronson, knowing that a lot of people have this issue with their cat, even if it’s not that extreme ,” Wilson said.

But as with anything on the internet, there are trolls. “We’ve seen it all,” Paris said.” We watch,’ You’re mistreat this cat ‘. We also ensure,’ I miss when Bruno was fat ‘.”

Some of the top regulations in the Facebook group, This Cat is Chonky, include no chonk-shaming , no owner-shaming and don’t do politics or medical advice.

” People watch a picture of a fat cat and they think we attained it fat ,” Paris said.” Or when we just started to show his weight-loss photos, people who don’t know anything about cats will say,’ Oh, he only lost two pounds? Well he should have lost more by now .”

She continued:” You don’t know why a cat is fat. You don’t know what diets ought to have tried. You don’t know if it has diabetes or not .”

In between cute pictures of Bronson and videos of his monthly weigh-ins, Wilson and Hanneman also post about adoptable cats around the country that are largely overweight, something Paris thinks is a much-needed effort.

” Something that’s good about this internet trend is that it does draw attention to these pets that would be passed by traditionally ,” she said.” All of these famous chonky cats came from shelters. I think that shines a really good light. Kittens are more likely to be adopted, but if these internet-famous chonky cats are more likely to get adult cats adopted, then we did our undertakings .”

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Selfies, influencers and a Twitter president: the decade of the social media celebrity

From Gyneth Paltrow to Trump, todays starrings speak directly to their fans. But are they genuinely controlling their message?

I have a friend, Adam, who is an autograph seller- a niche profession, and one that is getting more niche by the day. When we gratify for breakfast last month he was looking despondent.

” Everyone takes selfies these days ,” he said sadly, picking at his scrambled eggs.” It’s never autographs any more. They just want photos of themselves with celebrities .”

Anyone who has attended a red carpet event or watched one on Tv, knows that selfies have securely supplanted autographs, with fans careening desperately towards celebrities with outstretched phones instead of pens and paper. Celebrities have adapted accordingly. In 2017, a video of Liam Payne ran viral that depicted him miserably working his way down a line of selfie-takers, his smile lasting as long as it took for each fan to press click.

A photo of oneself with, say, Tom Cruise, feels more personal than a mere scribbled signature, which he could have given anyone( and could have been signed by anyone ). But the real reason selfies have abruptly rendered autographs as obsolete as landline telephones is because of social media. Instagram is constructed for photos , not autographs, and what’s the point of having your photo taken with Payne if you don’t then immediately post it and watch the ” OMG !” s and” NO Way !!!!” s come flooding in? If you stand next to a celebrity and your friends don’t like the photo, did it ever happen? Do you even exist?

Instagram launched in 2010, four years after Twitter, six years after Facebook. Although social media was originally pitched as a way for people to keep in touch with their friends, it quickly also became a way for people to feel greater proximity to celebrities, and to flaunt this closeness to others. Facebook, with characteristic hamfistedness, attempted to monetise this in 2013, when it announced it was trialling a feature that would allow users to pay to contact celebrities for a sliding scale of fees: 71 p for Jeremy Hunt, PS10. 68 for Tom Daley. But there was no need for people to spend money for the privilege, because celebrities had already proven extremely keen to bend down low and share their lives with the peasants. When Demi Moore appeared on David Letterman in 2010, she was already so addicted to Twitter she continued to tweet while live on air to millions. (” This stinks ,” Letterman griped .)

The appeal of social media for a celebrity is obvious, in that it allows them to talk to the public without those awful middlemen: journalists. The past decade is littered with examples of why celebrities( and their publicists) now prefer social media( which they can control) to giving interviews( which they cannot .) It’s unlikely that Michael Douglas would have tweeted that his throat cancer was caused by cunnilingus, as he told the Guardian’s Xan Brooks in 2013( and for which he later publicly apologised to his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones ). It’s even less likely that Liam Neeson would have made an Instagram story about the time he went out hoping to kill a” black bastard” after a friend was raped, as he said in an interview this year. Why risk such disasters when, instead, you can just take a flattering photo, slap a filter on it and post it to your already adoring followers? Mega celebrities with a hyper-online fanbase- Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Frank Ocean- can now go for years without giving an interview and their careers are helped rather than harmed for it.

Instagram is an airbrushing app, one that lets people touch up their photos, specifically, and their own lives, generally, by determining what they choose to post.( When Jennifer Aniston ultimately joined social media last month, and momentarily broke the internet, she naturally chose Instagram over the bearpit of Twitter .) Some are more honest about this than others: after he married Kim Kardashian- the celebrity who more than any other has made a virtue out of artifice- Kanye West proudly told reporters in 2014 that the two of them expended four days of their honeymoon in Florence playing with the filters on the wedding photo, that they eventually posted on Instagram,” because the flowers were off-colour and stuff like that “.

Frank
Frank Ocean: a mega celebrity with a hyper-online fanbase. Photograph: Rex/ Shutterstock

You wonder what they’d do with all that time if the internet didn’t exist- remedy cancer, perhaps? Musician John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen have established a new kind of fame for themselves with their regular social media posts: with Teigen complaining about Donald Trump on Twitter; both of them posting photos of their perfect household on Instagram. Teigen is considered more “real” than her friend Kardashian because she is funny and doesn’t take money to advertise dodgy weight-loss supplements. But their photos are as idealised and managed as any Hello! shoot. The reason Teigen- a heretofore relatively little known model- has over 26 million adherents on Instagram is because she hits that social media sweet place, which is to be( to use two of the more grating buzzwords of the decade) aspirational and authentic.

At the beginning of this decade, it was the aspirational side of the equation that was deemed more important- leading to the rise of a new kind of celebrity: the influencers. This bewilder group of people indicate their lives are so perfect that, by showing us photos of how they eat, dress, mother, travel, decorate, exert, put on makeup and even remedy themselves of illness, they will influence us to do the same. For the successful, the money was suddenly limitless, as brands realised that the public trusted influencers more than adverts, and so threw money at them to endorse their products; Kylie Jenner, a makeup influencer, currently makes$ 1m per sponsored post. This was always a delicate bubble and it finally began to burst last year, when the Advertising Standards Authority decreed that influencers need to spell it out when they’re being paid to promote something. Writing ” ADVERT ” beneath that perfect photo of you chugging some Smart Water next to a waterfall doesn’t really boost one’s authenticity.

Even more problematic were the Fyre Festival debacle and the fall of YouTube superstars such as Logan Paul and PewDiePie, scandals that eroded the relationship between online celebrities and their followers. It turns out influencers weren’t more trustworthy than adverts; in fact, in the unregulated world of the web, they were markedly less so.

An older demographic has sneered at influencers, as they did with the previous decade’s reality Tv stars, indicating they are not ” real” celebrities. This is an absurd complaint, in recognition of the fact that some influencers have more adherents than traditional movie stars do. Yet influencers atomise audiences in a way traditional celebrities don’t: even if you have never bought Vogue, you’ll know who Cindy Crawford is; unless you follow Chiara Ferragni on social media you will likely have no idea who she is- and yet the style influencer has four times as many adherents as Crawford.

Ironically, the rise of the influencer began with a very old-school celebrity, one who is frequently accused of being the personification of the worst kind of elitist privilege: Gwyneth Paltrow. When Paltrow launched her wellness website, Goop, in 2008, few would have predicted it would reshape both Paltrow’s career and cultural notions of what constitutes an aspirational lifestyle. Paltrow helped usher out the 2000 s trend for bling and Cristal, swapping them for yoga clothes and gluten-free kale crisps, stimulating discreet asceticism the ultimate -Alister look. Which is more authentic is debatable, but the biggest swap Paltrow stimulated was personal: “shes gone” from being an Academy Award-winning actor to online influencer. And, in recognition of the fact that her company is now estimated to be worth $ 250 m, she probably stimulated the more lucrative choice.

Happily , not everyone uses social media to hawk fantasy images of themselves. Occasional glimpses of reality peek through, to everyone’s delight, and by “reality” I entail “feuds”. We’ve had Katy Perry and Taylor Swift’s long-running snarky subtweets aimed at one another. There were Kim Cattrall’s explicit swipes at Sarah Jessica Parker on Instagram. After her brother died, she wrote:” I don’t need your love or support at this tragic time @ sarahjessicaparker. Let me make this VERY clear.( If I haven’t already .) You are not my family. You are not my friend. So I’m writing to tell you one last time to stop exploiting our tragedy in order to restore your’ nice girl’ persona .” Most recently, Coleen Rooney accused” Rebekah Vardy’s account” of selling tales about her to the tabloids. One can only feel deep stabs of regret that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford died before either had access to an iPhone.

As much as young celebrities tout the importance of authenticity, those who come across as most genuine tend to be the older ones- perhaps because they are less internet savvy, or, more likely, have fewer media directors. Bette Midler and, in particular, Cher have really come into their own on Twitter, gleefully sharing their often emoji-heavy supposes on Trump and politics in general. (” What do you think of Boris Johnson ?” one tweeter asked Cher.” F-ing idiot who lied to the British ppl ,” the goddess replied, rightly .) And while Instagram may be best known for hyper-stylised photos of, say, Beyonce holding her newborn twins, the most purely enjoyable celebrity accounts belong to Glenn Close- she posts candid videos of herself and her puppies, always liked by Michael Douglas- and Diane Keaton, who posts decidedly unstylised photos of herself.” YES, I AM WEARING[ TROUSERS] UNDER A SKIRT” is a typical all-caps caption. Ever wanted to know what Annie Hall would be like online? Now you know.

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Sarah Jessica Parker, target of Instagram swipes from fellow Sex And The City star Kim Cattrall. Photograph: Reuters

Of course, the downside to being able to reach one’s public immediately is that the public can reach back. Stars from Stephen Fry to Nicki Minaj have publicly left social media sites after the audience proved a little less admiring than they hoped. “Stan”- or obsessive fan- culture has blossomed. Sometimes this has been to the celebrity’s benefit: Lady Gaga’s fan squad, the Little Monsters, amped up her Oscar campaign for A Star Is Born. But if stans feel they have been let down by the object of their preoccupation, they will viciously bully the( usually female) star, as Katy Perry and Demi Lovato have experienced. As a outcome, many celebrities have turned off the comments on their accounts, so we can hear them but they can’t hear us. So much for getting closer.

And yet, for all the fascination social media currently exerts, the celebrity narratives that will have the most enduring impact did not start there. There had been rumors about Harvey Weinstein for years, but he was ultimately undone by good old-fashioned investigative reporting, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times, and Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker. Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Woody Allen, Max Clifford, Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer became pariahs( in Jackson’s case, posthumously) when their accusers spoke to journalists. Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world , not on social media, but on the covering of Vanity Fair. When Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, the artist formerly known as Meghan Markle, spoke out against the “campaigns” against her, they directed their rage towards the print media( and the Mail on Sunday in particular ). Ironically, this could be seen as instead reassuring to the newspaper industry: sure, our sales are falling, but for a certain kind of celebrity, publish is still what matters.

Nonetheless, this decade has, in a very profound way, been shaped by the social media celebrity. Donald Trump did not emerge from the online world; he came to prominence through the traditional format of TV. But he has taken advantage of the route Twitter prioritises personality over expertise: it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you say it in a way that captures the most attention; and the public has grown accustomed to this kind of communication. In the early part of the decade, Trump devoted himself a Twitter makeover; it was a platform where he could move from being the embodiment of obnoxious Manhattan privilege( bragging in interviews that he wouldn’t rent an apartment to anyone on welfare ), to the say-it-like-it-is kinda guy, the one who tweets about the dangers of vaccination. When he ran for the presidency, Trump maintained this persona, and many people assumed that’s all it was- a persona- and one he would fell once in office. Well, we all know how that turned out.

Now he, and in this country, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, treat their offices as if they were a form of social media: they rely on the web to build a dedicated following, and complain about journalists who venture anything but adoring coverage. They disdain traditional interviews, preferring instead to put out their messages via Facebook or Twitter, metaphorically turning off the comments, staying comfortably inside their respective bubbles. Social media was never supposed to reflect the real world, but the real world is increasingly being bent to reflect social media. And it’s not only autograph vendors who will suffer for that.

* If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in publish, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publishing ).

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Everybody lies: how Google search uncovers our darkest secrets

What can we learn about ourselves from the things we ask online? Seth StephensDavidowitz analysed anonymous Google search data, uncovering disturbing truths about our desires, faiths and prejudices

Everybody lies. People lie about how many beverages they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when theyre not. They say theyll be in touch when they wont. They say its not about you when it is. They say they love you when they dont. They say theyre happy while in the dumps. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to boss. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to spouses. They lie to spouses. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys. Heres my brief survey for you ūüėõ TAGEND

Have you ever cheated in an exam?

Have you ever fantasised about killing someone?

Were you tempted to lie?

Many people underreport embarrassing behaviours and thoughts on surveys. They want to look good, even though most surveys are anonymous. This is called social desirability bias. An important paper in 1950 provided powerful evidence of how surveys can fall victim to such bias. Researchers collected data, from official sources, on the residents of Denver: what percentage of them voted, dedicated to charity, and owned a library card. They then surveyed the residents to see if the percentages would match. The results were, at the time, shocking. What the residents reported to the surveys was very different from the data the researchers had met. Even though nobody dedicated their names, people, in large numbers, exaggerated their voter registration status, voting behaviour, and charitable giving.

Has anything changed in 65 years? In the age of the internet , not owning a library card is no longer embarrassing. But, while whats embarrassing or desirable may have changed, people tendency to delude pollsters remains strong. A recent survey asked University of Maryland graduates various questions about their college experience. The answers were compared with official records. People consistently dedicated incorrect datum, in ways that constructed them seem good. Fewer than 2% reported that they graduated with lower than a 2.5 GPA( grade point average ). In reality, about 11% did. And 44% said they had donated to the university in the past year. In reality, about 28% did.

Then theres that odd habit we sometimes have of lying to ourselves. Lying to oneself may explain why so many people say they are above average. How big is this problem? More than 40% of one companys technologists said they are in the top 5 %. More than 90% of college professors say they do above-average work. One-quarter of high school seniors think they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with other people. If you are deluding yourself, you cant be honest in a survey.

The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will acknowledge more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them. However, on sensitive topics, every survey method will elicit substantial misreporting. People have no incentive to tell surveys the truth.

How, hence, can we learn what our fellow humen are really thinking and doing? Big data. Certain online sources get people to admit things there is no way to admit anywhere else. They serve as a digital truth serum. Think of Google searches. Remember situations that induce people more honest. Online? Check. Alone? Check. No person administering a survey? Check.

The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else. Google was invented so that people could learn about the world , not so researchers could learn about people, but it turns out the trails we leave as we try knowledge on the internet are tremendously revealing.

I have spent the past four years analysing anonymous Google data. The revelations have maintained coming. Mental illness, human sexuality, abortion, religion, health. Not exactly small topics, and this dataset, which didnt exist a couple of decades ago, offered surprising new views on all of them. I am now convinced that Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human rights psyche.

The Truth About Sex

How many American humen are gay? This is a regular question in sexuality research. Yet it has been among the toughest questions for social scientists to answer. Psychologists no longer believe Alfred Kinseys famous estimation based on surveys that oversampled prisoners and prostitutes that 10% of American humen are lesbian. Representative surveys now tell us about 2% to 3% are. But sexual preference has long been among the subjects upon which people have tended to lie. I think I can use big data to give a better answer to this question than we have ever had.

First, more on that survey data. Surveys are talking about there are far more gay men in tolerant states than intolerant nations. For example, according to a Gallup survey, the proportion of the population that is gay is almost twice as high in Rhode Island, the nation with the highest support for gay matrimony, than Mississippi, the state with the lowest is supportive of gay wedding. There are two likely explanations for this. First, homosexual men born in intolerant nations may move to tolerant nations. Second, gay humen in intolerant nations may not disclose that they are lesbian. Some insight into explanation number one lesbian mobility can be gleaned from another big data source: Facebook, which allows users to list what gender they are interested in. About 2.5% of male Facebook users who list a gender of interest say they are interested in men; that corresponds approximately with what the surveys indicate.

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How, hence, can we learn what our fellow humen are actually thinking and doing? Big data. Photo: Thomas M Scheer/ Getty Images/ EyeEm

And Facebook too depicts big differences in the lesbian population in states with high versus low tolerance: Facebook has the lesbian population more than twice as high in Rhode Island as in Mississippi. Facebook also can provide information on how people move around. I was able to code the home town of a sample of openly lesbian Facebook users. This allowed me to immediately calculate how many lesbian humen move out of intolerant states into more tolerant areas of the country. The answer? There is clearly some mobility from Oklahoma City to San Francisco, for example. But I estimate that humen moving to someplace more open-minded can explain less than half of the difference in the openly gay population in tolerant versus intolerant states.

If mobility cannot fully explain why some countries have so many more openly gay humen, the closet must be playing a big role. Which brings us back to Google, with which so many people have proved willing to share so much.

Countrywide, I estimate using data from Google searches and Google AdWords that about 5% of male porn searches are for gay-male porn. Overall, there are more lesbian porn searches in tolerant states compared with intolerant nations. In Mississippi, I estimate that 4.8% of male porn searches are for gay porn, far higher than the numbers suggested by either surveys or Facebook and reasonably close to the 5.2% of pornography searches that are for gay porn in Rhode Island.

So how many American men are gay? This measure of porn searches by humen roughly 5% are same-sex seems a reasonable estimation of the true size of the gay population in the United States. Five per cent of American men being gay is an estimate, of course. Some humen are bisexual; some especially when young are not sure what they are. Patently, you cant counting this as precisely as you might the number of people who vote or attend a movie. But one consequence of my estimation is clear: an awful lot of men in the United States, particularly in intolerant states, are still in the closet. They dont uncover their sexual preferences on Facebook. They dont acknowledge it on surveys. And, in many cases, they may even be married to women.

It turns out that spouses suspect their spouses of being lesbian instead frequently. They demonstrate that suspicion in the astonishingly common search: Is my husband gay? The term lesbian is 10% more likely to complete searches that begin Is my husband … than the second-place word, cheating. It is eight times more common than an alcoholic and 10 times more common than depressed.

Most tellingly perhaps, searches questioning a husbands sexuality are far more prevalent in the least tolerant regions. The nations with the highest percentage of women asking this question are South Carolina and Louisiana. In fact, in 21 of the 25 nations where this question is most frequently asked, is supportive of gay marriage is lower than the national average.

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What do our searches expose about us? Photo: Michael Gottschalk/ Photothek via Getty Images

Closets are not just repositories of fictions. When it comes to sexuality, people keep many secrets about how much they are having, for example. Americans report using far more condoms than are sold every year. You might therefore think this means they are just saying they use condoms more often during sex than they actually do. The evidence suggests they also exaggerate how often they are having sex embarking upon. About 11% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 say they are sexually active , not currently pregnant, and not using contraception. Even with relatively conservative hypothesis about how many times they are having sex, scientists would expect 10% of them to become pregnant every month. But this would already be more than the total number of pregnancies in the United States( which is one in 113 women of childbearing age ).

In our sex-obsessed culture it can be hard to admit that you are just not having that much. But if youre looking for understanding or advice, you have, once again, an incentive to tell Google. On Google, there are 16 times more complaints about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk. There are five-and-a-half times more complaints about an unmarried partner not wanting sex than an unmarried partner refusing to text back.

And Google searches suggest a surprising culprit for many of these sexless relationships. There are twice as many complaints that a boyfriend wont have sex than that a girlfriend wont have sex. By far, the number 1 search objection about a boyfriend is My boyfriend wont have sex with me.( Google searches are not broken down by gender, but since the previous analysis said that 95% of men are straight, we are going to be able guess that not many boyfriend searches are coming from men .)

How should we interpret this? Does this really imply that boyfriends withhold sexuality more than girlfriends? Not necessarily. As mentioned earlier, Google searches can be biased in favour of stuff people are uptight talking about. Men may feel more comfortable telling their friends about their girlfriends lack of sexual interest than women are telling their friends about their boyfriends. Still, even if the Google data does not indicate that boyfriends are actually twice as likely to avoid sexuality as girlfriends, it does suggest that boyfriends avoiding sexuality is more common than people let on.

Google data also suggests a reason people may be avoiding sex so frequently: enormous nervousnes, with much of it misplaced. Start with mens anxieties. It isnt news that humen worry about how well endowed they are, but the degree of this fret is rather profound. Men Google more questions about their sexual organ than any other body portion: more than about their lungs, liver, feet, ears , nose, throat, and brain blended. Men conduct more searches for how to make their penises bigger than how to tune a guitar, make an omelette, or change a tyre. Mens top Googled concern about steroids isnt whether they may injury their health but whether taking them might diminish the size of their penis. Mens top Googled question related to how their body or intellect would change as they aged was whether their penis would get smaller.

Do women care about penis size? Rarely, according to Google searches. For every search females make about a partners phallus, men attain roughly 170 searches about their own. True, on the rare occasions females do express concerns about a partners penis, it is frequently about its sizing, but not necessarily that its small. More than 40% of complaints about a partners penis size say that its too big. Pain is the most Googled word used in searches with the phrase ___ during sexuality. Yet merely 1% of mens searches looking to change their penis sizing are trying information on how to make it smaller.

Mens second most common sexuality question is how to making such a sex encounters longer. Once again, the insecurities of men do not appear to match such concerns of women. There are roughly the same number of searches asking how to make a boyfriend climax more quickly as climax more slowly. In fact, the most common concern women have related to a boyfriends orgasm isnt about when it happened but why it isnt happening at all.

We dont often talk about body image issues when it comes to men. And while its true that overall interest in personal appearance skeweds female, its not as lopsided as stereotypes would suggest. According to my analysis of Google AdWords, which measures the websites people visit, interest in beauty and fitness is 42% male, weight loss is 33% male, and cosmetic surgery is 39% male. Among all searches with how to related to breasts, about 20% ask how to get rid of man breasts.

The Truth About Hate and Prejudice

Sex and romance are barely the only topics shawl in disgrace and, therefore , not the only topics about which people keep secrets. Many people are, for the right reasons, inclined to keep their racisms to themselves. I suppose you could call it progress that many people today feel they will be judged if they admit they judge other people based on their ethnicity, sex orientation, or religion. But many Americans still do. You can see this on Google, where users sometimes ask questions such as Why are black people rude? or Why are Jews evil?

A few patterns among these stereotypes stand out. For example, African Americans are the only group that faces a rude stereotype. Virtually every group is a victim of a stupid stereotype; the only two that are not: Jews and Muslims. The evil stereotype is applied to Jews, Muslims, and lesbian people but not black people, Mexicans, Asians, and Christians. Muslims are the only group stereotyped as terrorists. When a Muslim American plays into this stereotype, the response can be instantaneous and vicious. Google search data can give us a minute-by-minute peek into such eruptions of hate-fuelled rage.

Consider what happened shortly after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December, 2015. That morning, Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik entered a meeting of Farooks co-workers armed with semi-automatic pistols and semi-automatic rifles and murdered 14 people. That evening, minutes after the media first reported one of the shooters Muslim-sounding names, a disturbing number of Californians decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them. The top Google search in California with the word Muslims in it at the time was kill Muslims. And overall, Americans searched for the phrase kill Muslims with about the same frequency that they searched for martini recipe and migraine symptoms.

In the days following the San Bernardino attack, for every American concerned with Islamophobia, another was searching for kill Muslims. While hate searches were approximately 20% of all searches about Muslims before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed it. And this minute-by-minute search data can tell us how difficult it can be to calm this rage.

Four days after the shooting, President Obama dedicated a prime-time address to the country. He wanted to reassure Americans that the government could both stop terrorism and, perhaps more importantly, quiet this dangerous Islamophobia. Obama appealed to our better angels, speaking of the importance of inclusion and tolerance. The rhetoric was powerful and moving. The Los Angeles Times praised Obama for[ warning] against allowing fear to cloud our decision. The New York Times called the speech both tough and calming. The website ThinkProgress praised it as a necessary tool of good governance, geared towards saving the lives of Muslim Americans. Obamas speech, in other words, was judged a major success. But was it?

Google search data indicates otherwise. Together with Evan Soltas, then at Princeton, I examined the data. In his speech, the president said: It is the responsibility of all Americans of every religion to reject discrimination. But searches calling Muslims terrorists, bad, violent, and evil doubled during and shortly after the speech. President Obama also said: It is our responsibility to repudiate religious exams on who we acknowledge into this country. But negative searches about Syrian refugees, a mostly Muslim group then desperately go looking for a safe haven, rose 60%, while searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35%. Obama asked Americans to not forget that freedom is more powerful than anxiety. Yet searches for kill Muslims tripled during his speech. In fact, just about every negative search we could think to exam regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obamas speech, and just about every positive search we could think to exam declined.

In other words, Obama seemed to say all the right things. But new data from the internet, offering digital truth serum, suggested that the speech actually backfired in its main objectives. Instead of pacifying the angry mob, as everybody thought he was doing, the internet data tells us that Obama actually inflamed it. Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back.

So what should Obama have said to quell this particular kind of hatred currently so virulent in America? Well circle back to that later. First were going to take a look at an age-old vein of racism in the United States, the form of loathe that in fact stands out above the remainder, the one that has been the most destructive and the topic of the research that began this volume. In my work with Google search data, the single most telling fact I have found considering loathe on the internet is the popularity of the word nigger.

Either singular or in its plural form, the word is included in 7m American searches every year.( Again, the word used in rap sungs is almost always nigga , not nigger, so theres no significant impact from hip-hop lyrics to account for .) Searches for nigger jokes are 17 times more common than searches for kike jokes, gook jokes, spic jokes, chink jokes, and fag jokes blended. When are these searches most common? Whenever African Americans are in the news. Among the periods when such searches were highest was the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when television and newspapers presented images of desperate black people in New Orleans struggling for their survival. They also shot up during Obamas first election. And searches rose on average about 30% on Martin Luther King Jr Day.

The frightening ubiquity of this racial slur hurls into doubt some current understandings of racism. Any theory of racism has to explain a big puzzle in America. On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, scheduled interview, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation among political scientists recently has been that this is due, in big part, to widespread implicit prejudice. White Americans may mean well, this theory runs, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their therapy of black Americans.

Academics fabricated an ingenious route to test for such a bias. It is called the implicit association test. The exams have consistently shown that it takes most people milliseconds longer to associate black faces with positive terms, such as good, than with negative terms, such as awful. For white faces, the specific characteristics is reversed. The extra day it takes is evidence of someones implicit racism a racism the person or persons may not even be aware of.

There is, though, an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism. Suppose there is a reasonably widespread conscious racism of which people are very much aware but to which they wont confess surely not in a survey. Thats what the search data seems to be saying. There is nothing implicit about searching for nigger jokes. And its hard to imagine that Americans are Googling the word nigger with the same frequency as migraine and economist without explicit racism having a major impact on African Americans. Prior to the Google data, we didnt have a persuading measure of this virulent animus. Now we do. We are, therefore, in a position to see what it explains. It explains why Obamas vote totals in 2008 and 2012 were depressed in many regions. It also correlates with the black-white wage gap, as a team of economists recently reported. The areas that I had seen make the most racist searches underpay black people.

And then there is the phenomenon of Donald Trumps candidacy. When Nate Silver, the polling guru, looked for the geographic variable that correlated most strongly with subsistence in the 2016 Republican primary for Trump, he found it in the map of racism I had developed. To be provocative and to promote more research in this area, let me are set forth the following hypothesi, ready to be tested by intellectuals across a range of fields. The primary rationale for discrimination against African Americans today is not the fact that the ones who agree to participate in lab experiments attain subconscious associations between negative words and black people; it is the fact that millions of white Americans continue to do things like search for nigger jokes.

The Truth About Girls

The discrimination black people regularly experience in the United States appears to be fuelled more widely by explicit, if concealed, aggression. But, for other groups, subconscious prejudice may have a most fundamental impact. For example, I was able to use Google searches to find evidence of implicit racism against another segment of the population: young girl. And who, might you ask, “wouldve been” harbouring bias against girls? Their parents.

Its scarcely surprising that parents of young children are often excited by the thought that their kids might be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting Is my two-year-old, the most common next word is gifted. But this question is not asked equally about boys and girls. Parents are two-and-a-half times more likely to ask Is my son gifted? than Is my daughter gifted? Parents present a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like Is my son a genius?

Are mothers picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys? Perhaps young sons are more likely than young girls to use big words or prove objective signs of giftedness? Nope. If anything, its the opposite. At young ages, girls have consistently been shown to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 9% more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Despite all this, parents looking around the dinner table appear to see more gifted sons than daughters. In fact, on every search term related to intelligence I tested, including those indicating its absence, mothers were more likely to be inquiring about their sons rather than their daughters. There are also more searches for is my son behind or stupid than comparable searches for daughters. But searches with negative terms like behind and stupid are less specifically skewed toward sons than searches with positive terms, such as gifted or genius.

What then are mothers overruling fears regarding their daughters? Primarily, anything related to appearance. Consider questions about a childs weight. Mothers Google Is my daughter overweight? approximately twice as frequently as they Google Is my son overweight? Parents are about twice as likely to ask how to get their daughters to lose weight as they are to ask how to get their sons to do the same. Just as with giftedness, this gender bias is not grounded in reality. About 28% of daughters are overweight, while 35% of sons are. Even though scales measure more overweight sons than daughters, mothers consider or worry about overweight girls much more frequently than overweight sons. Mothers are also one-and-a-half times more likely to ask whether their daughter is beautiful than whether their son is handsome.

Liberal readers may imagine that these biases are more common in conservative parts of the country, but I didnt find any evidence of that. In fact, I did not find a significant relationship between any of these biases and the political or culture makeup of a state. It would seem this bias against girls is more widespread and deeply ingrained than wed care to believe.

Can We Handle the Truth?

I cant feign there isnt a darkness in some of this data. It has disclosed the continued existence of millions of closeted gay humen; widespread animus against African Americans; and an outbreak of violent Islamophobic rage that only got worse when the president appealed for tolerance. Not precisely cheery stuff. If people consistently tell us what they think we want to hear, we will generally be told things that are more comforting than the truth. Digital truth serum, on average, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought.

But there are at least three ways this knowledge can improve our lives. First, there can be convenience in knowing you are not alone in your insecurities and embarrassing behaviour. Google searches can help demonstrate you are not alone. When you were young, a teacher may have told you that if you have a question you are able to raise your hand and ask it, because if youre confounded, others are too. If you were anything like me, you ignored your educator and sat there mutely, afraid to open your mouth. Your questions were too dumb, you thought; everyone elses were more profound. The anonymous, aggregate Google data can tell us once and for all how right our teachers were. Plenty of basic, sub-profound questions lurk in other minds, too.

The second benefit of digital truth serum is that it alerts us to people who are suffering. The Human Rights Campaign asks me to work with them in helping educate humen in certain nations about the possibility of coming out of the closet. They are looking to use the anonymous and aggregate Google search data to help them choose where best to target their resources.

The final and, I guess, most powerful value in this data is its ability to lead us from problems to answers. With more understanding, we might find ways to reduce the worlds supply of nasty attitudes. Lets return to Obamas speech about Islamophobia. Recall that every time he argued that people should respect Muslims more, the people he was trying to reach became more enraged. Google searches, however, reveal that there was one line that did trigger the type of response Obama might have wanted. He said: Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defence of our country.

After this line, for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after Muslim was not terrorists, radicals, or refugees. It was athletes, followed by soldiers. And, in fact, athletes maintained the top spot for a full day afterwards. When we lecture angry people, the search data implies that their ferocity can grow. But subtly provoking people curiosity, devoting new information, and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage may turn their supposes in different, more positive directions.

Two months after that speech, Obama devoted another broadcasted speech on Islamophobia, this time at a mosque. Perhaps someone in the presidents office had read Soltass and my Times column, which discussed what had worked and what hadnt, for the contents of this speech was noticeably different.

Obama spent little time insisting on the value of tolerance. Instead, he focused overwhelmingly on eliciting peoples curiosity and changing their perceptions of Muslim Americans. Many of the slaves from Africa were Muslim, Obama told us; Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran; a Muslim American designed skyscrapers in Chicago. Obama again spoke of Muslim athletes and armed service members, but also talked of Muslim police officer and firefighters, teachers and doctors. And my analysis of the Google searches indicates this speech was more successful than the previous one. Many of the hateful, rageful searches against Muslims dropped in the hours afterwards.

There are other potential ways to use search data to learn what causes, or reduces, hate. For example, we might look at how racist searches change after a black quarterback is drafted in a city, or how sexist searches change after a woman is elected to office. Learning of our subconscious prejudices can also be useful. We might all make an extra great efforts to delight in little girls minds and demonstrate less concern with their appearance. Google search data and other wellsprings of truth on the internet dedicate us an unprecedented look into the darkest corners of the human rights subconsciou. This is at times, I admit, difficult to face. But it can also be empowering. We can use the data to fight the darkness. Collecting rich data on the worlds problems is the first step toward fixing them.

Extracted from: Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, published by Bloomsbury, 20. To order for 17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846 Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Phone orders min p& p of 1.99.. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz will be speaking in London at the Royal Society of Arts on Tuesday and at Second Home on Wednesday

Q& A with Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Seth
The degree to which people are self-absorbed is pretty shocking: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Photo: Christopher Lane for the Observer

Whats your background ?
Id describe myself as a data scientist, but my PhD is in economics. When I was doing my PhD, in 2012, I detected this tool called
Google Trends that tells you what people are searching, and where, and I became obsessed with it. I know that when people first consider Google data, they say Oh this is weird, this isnt perfect data, but I knew that perfect data didnt exist. The traditional data sets left a lot to be desired. What would your search records disclose about you ?
They could definitely tell Im a hypochondriac because Im waking up in the middle of the night doing Google searches about my health. There are definitely things about me that you could figure out. When stimulating claims about a topic, its better to do it on aggregate, but I think you can figure out a lot, if not everything, about an individual by what theyre searching on Google. You ran at Google ?
For about a year and a half. I was on the economics team and also the quantitative marketing team. Some was analysis of ad, which I get bored of, which is one of the reasons I stopped working there. Did working there give you an understanding that helped this book ?
Yeah, I think it did. All this data Im talking about is public. But from gratifying the people who know more about this data than anyone in the world, Im much more confident that it means what I think it means. Does it change your view of human nature? Are we darker and stranger beasts than you realised ?
Yeah. I guess I had a dark view of human nature embarking upon, and I suppose now its gotten even darker. I guess the degree to which people are self-absorbed is pretty shocking.

When Trump became president, all my friends said how anxious the latter are, they couldnt sleep because theyre so concerned about immigrants and the Muslim ban. But from the data you can see that in liberal areas of the country there wasnt a rise in nervousnes when Trump was elected. When people were waking up at 3am in a cold sweat, their searches were about their undertaking, their health, their relationship theyre not concerned about the Muslim ban or global warming.

Was the Google search data telling you that Trump was going to win ?
I did see that Trump was going to win. You watched clearly that African American turnout was going to be way down, because in cities with 95% black people there was a collapse in searches for voting info. That was a big reason Hillary Clinton did so much worse than the polls suggested. Whats next ?
I want to keep on exploring this, whether in academia, journalism or more books. Its such an exciting region: what people are really like, how the world truly works. I may just research sex for the next few months. One thing Ive learned from this book, people are more interested in sex than I thought they were.

Interview by Killian Fox

Read more: www.theguardian.com

This Man Lost Almost 400 Pounds And The Story Behind His Motivation Is Inspiring

Weight-loss stories never cease to inspire and amaze me.

The sum of dedication and effort it takes for people to shed all of those extra pounds is nothing short of unbelievable. But there is one man who stands out to me, and that’s because his narrative is so special.

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At his heaviest, Jesse Shand was nearly 700 pounds. At that point, he had pretty much lost all hope that he’d ever get on track. But where reference is posted to an online forum, he found the encouragement he needed from the people he least expected to support him.

Shand had always been overweight, but when he began to lose confidence and spend more and more time indoors on his computer, the problem only got worse.

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He eventually reached the point of never leaving the house. He stopped ensure his friends altogether and hadn’t showered for over a year because he couldn’t are integrated into it.

He wasn’t even able to buckle his own seat belt.

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He became disgusted with himself and started eating even more.

He didn’t think he could ever lose all of his weight, so he gave up and began sinking into a dark depression.

It was only when he posted to an online bodybuilding forum as a joke that he was able to find the motivation to take back his life.

And it came from the very the people he believed would ridicule him the most.

It would have been so easy for those people to merely make fun of Shand, but instead, they actually saved his life. If that doesn’t deserve a round of applause, I don’t know what does.

Read more:

Google’s My Activity uncovers just how much it knows about you

Search company launches new opt-in ad service for non-Google sites and tools that show how it tracks your internet activity

Google has rolled out new tools to let users find what its ad-tracking service has learned about them, and to let users opt in or out of a new personalised ads service.

The addition to Googles account sets, called My Activity, allows users to review everything that Google has tracked about their behaviour across search, YouTube, Chrome, Android and everything else and edit or delete it at each step.

If you use Google for everything you do, you might be surprised by just how much it catalogues about your comings and runs on the internet.

google Googles My Activity page allows users to see what Google records of their internet activity Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The My Activity tools comes with new ad predilections. Google currently uses the information it has learned about you to tailor ads across its own services, of which you can opt out.

But now Google is offering to use its behavioural information to tailor ads presented across the wider non-Google internet and Googles search pages, which until now was purely done using the use of cookies.

The big difference to most other moves by similar companies offering ads on its own service and third-party sites, including Facebook, is that Google is making such interest-based advertising extension opt-in , not opt-out. If a user does not actively select to enable the new ad targeting they will not automatically be enrolled.

Google Google signed-out ad control puts Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Now there are two separate behavioural advert puts for users to switch on or off as they see fit. One is so-called signed in ads, those on Google services, and signed out ads, those served by Google on third-party sites of which there are over 2m across the internet.

For the privacy conscious, youre unlikely to want to opt in for greater profiling and should you wish to turn off both signed in and signed out ads, Google also has a Chrome extension to permanently opt out of Googles DoubleClick tracking cookie. But to encourage users and make dealing with ads a more palatable proposition Googles making tools available to users to sweeten the deal. These include the ability to mute certain ads, including those that irritatingly seem to follow you around the internet after the odd search or product viewing, and find out why youre seeing particular ads.

The new tools and controls are rolling out to users at the moment, but not everyone has immediate access. Users should get a notification about privacy and security changes in the near future, which will guide them to the new ads settings.

Google blocked 780 m bad ads in 2015 such as weight-loss swindles

Google to place global forbid on payday loan adverts from July

Cancer cons, phoney accidents and fake demises: satisfy the internet hoax buster | Rachel Monroe

The long read: After Taryn Wright exposed an elaborate fake tragedy on Facebook, she found herself leading a squad of online detectives but on the internet, it doesnt take long for a crowd to become a mob

On 13 May 2012, friends of Dana Dirr, a 35-year-old surgeon in Saskatchewan, were greeted with a distressing message when they logged into Facebook: URGENT PRAYERS NEEDED. A post written by Dirrs father informed her friends that Dana was fighting for her life after a head-on car accident. Dana had been airlifted to the very same trauma centre where she worked as a surgeon; in fact, she was meant to be on duty that night. Dana is almost 35 weeks pregnant now, her father wrote. So please pray for her and the baby!

Within hours, hundreds of people had shared the post of Danas accident, and hundreds more had left supportive comments. As she fought for her life, her family continued to post updates to Facebook. Minutely detailing their lives online was nothing new for the Dirrs. Danas husband, a tattooed ex-punk named JS, had been active in online communities for at least a decade and had acquired hundreds of online-only friends (and at least one online lover). In 2010, Dana and JS had even become minor internet celebrities when they began sharing the story of their seven-year-old son Eli, who was in the midst of his fourth battle with cancer, with a growing number of followers first a few hundred, then a few thousand. They called him Warrior Eli.

Friends of the Dirrs returned to their Facebook page for the rest of the day in search of new updates. Late that night, JS announced that baby Evelyn was delivered healthy at 11.11pm; shortly afterwards, at 12.02am, Dana died. Her husband saw this timing as Danas final act of courage: She wouldnt have wanted Evies birthday to be overshadowed by her death every year, he wrote. She waited until just two minutes after midnight on Mothers Day to leave us.

The familys friends and followers asked about setting up a crowdfunding campaign to provide financial support during this time of trouble, but JS demurred. The Canadian healthcare system would be footing the bills, he said. Instead, the family asked for donations to be made to Alexs Lemonade Stand, a childhood cancer charity.

Those who had got to know the Dirrs online mourned Danas death. I spent my night before Mothers Day in tears and every time I told my story yesterday I was in tears on Mothers Day!! one Facebook friend wrote later she also donated $50 to Alexs Lemonade Stand.

In a cosy house in the southern suburbs of Chicago, Taryn Wright watched the dramatic saga of Dana Dirrs death unfold online in real time. Wright was in her early 30s and was living with her parents at the time, practically immobile after major hip surgery. She dealt with the depressing lack of autonomy and mobility as best she could mostly by knitting and doing paint-by-numbers like a serial killer.

When Wright stumbled upon the ostentatiously tragic story of Dana Dirr, she quickly came to feel that something did not add up. Danas dramatic death and the birth of her baby on Mothers Day, no less was not being reported anywhere in the media. And the more Taryn looked into it, the more the entire Dirr family saga, chronicled in a decades-worth of blogposts, MySpace pages, and online photo albums, did not ring true, either. There were too many kids, and too many of them were twins. There were murders and mistaken identities and dramatic ironies. It all sounded suspiciously like a soap opera.

Wright took a few of the hundreds of family photos that the Dirrs had posted online and plugged them into a reverse image search, which allows users to see where else an image has appeared on the internet. She found that the photographs had been lifted from a South African blogger. Whats more, Dana Dirr was supposedly a trauma surgeon, but there was no profile for her on a hospitals website, or any search result that had not been written by one of the Dirrs themselves.

Wright felt increasingly certain that Dana Dirr did not exist. The discovery both incensed and invigorated her. Her first instinct was to tell all the people whose photos had been stolen about the hoax. But instead of emailing each one of them, she decided to create a blog to announce her suspicions. She called itWarrior Eli Hoax Group.

A link made the rounds on Facebook, and within hours a group of like-minded sceptics began gravitating to the blog, posting their own findings in the comments section. Some had been Facebook friends with the Dirrs and were shocked to find they had been duped; some were caregivers who were active in the childhood cancer community, outraged by the deception; and others, like Wright, had no personal connection but were drawn to the oddness of the whole situation.

After having figured out that Dana Dirr probably did not exist, Wright started looking into Dirrs Facebook friends. When I Googled their names, nothing came up, she recalled. And when I started looking up their photos, I found that they had been stolen, too. Not only did Dana Dirr not exist, Wright determined, but neither did her husband or her sick son. More than 70 of the Dirrss Facebook friends were fake, too.

Wright, a dark-haired woman with precisely arched eyebrows, has long been drawn to stories of serial killers, serial liars, and cult leaders. (A few years ago, she and her sister pledged to stop bringing up the Jonestown mass suicide on first dates.) She had obsessively followed the twisted stories of several women who had been caught creating elaborate fake personas online in the early days of the internet. There was Kaycee Nicole, a teenager dying of leukaemia who turned out to be a healthy middle-aged woman. And Jesse Jubilee James, a cowboy-fireman-poet with suicidal tendencies and liver cancer, who was actually the creation of a woman in her mid-50s. Now Wright found herself in the heady position of being the detective, uncovering a hoax of her own.

At the beginning, it felt like a giant puzzle to solve, Wright said. She also started a Facebook group to facilitate the investigation; in the span of an hour, a hundred people joined to help her sift through online clues. Unnerved and exhilarated, Wright closed the group to new members. She stayed up all night, drinking Diet Coke and refreshing the site to check for new comments as the puzzle pieces came together. In less than a day, her makeshift blog got 100,000 hits. It was the first hint that what Wright had started might get beyond her control.

* * *

In 1951, the British endocrinologist Richard Asher identified a class of patients who presented dramatic symptoms and told fantastic stories of illness and woe. When credulity and sympathy began to wear thin in one town, they simply moved down the road and began again with a new set of doctors, nurses and neighbours. Asher called this illness Munchausen syndrome.

Munchausen patients pose a problem for clinicians, in that their sickness involves pretending to be sick. Sometimes that pretending blurs the line between real and fake illness: Munchausen patients have been known to bleed themselves in order to appear anaemic, or to dose themselves with chemotherapy drugs they dont need.

Several years ago, after noticing an increase in similar behaviour online, Dr Marc Feldman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama, coined the term Munchausen by internet to describe people who spread accounts of fake illness online. For most of these deceivers, sympathy and attention is the main thing, Feldman told me. They get nurturance they feel unable to get in any other way. They may have poor social skills or poor coping strategies, and pretending to be ill allows them to manifest this instant and caring community.

Before the advent of the internet, people would have to read medical textbooks or go to medical libraries to learn about esoteric ailments, said Feldman. They had to practise their pain faces in the mirror, then go to the ER and enact a painful crisis of some sort for the staff. Now you can go to Wikipedia and become an expert on an ailment in 20 minutes. Then you go online and instantly find a supportive community.

When people from that supportive community realise that their sympathy (and sometimes money) has been extracted under false pretences, they may, like victims of financial fraud, feel too ashamed to talk about it. Others such as those who flocked to the Warrior Eli Hoax blog take it one step further, turning their embarrassment into revenge, becoming online vigilantes.

In May 2012, Wright wrote dozens of blogposts about the Dirrs. She traced a photo of Dana Dirrs pregnant belly back to a New York mother, and tracked down 10-year-old blogposts about the tragic murder of JSs (fictional) twin. As the updates rolled in, the sites audience kept growing. Wright found herself in the centre of an odd, passionate group of amateur online detectives. Her hundred-strong Warrior Eli Hoax Facebook group made researching the Dirr case easier. One person would share expertise on a rare form of childhood cancer, while another would turn out to know about tracking down IP addresses.

The


The donation page for the fictitious Dana Dirr posted by a hoaxer on a cancer charirty website. Photograph: Picasa/Warrior Eli Hoax Group

It did not take long for the group to figure out who was behind the Dirr drama. Several of the familys supporters had received packages of plastic bracelets with a message of support for Warrior Eli. The packages had been sent and paid for by JSs sister, Emily. Unlike the other Dirr family members, Emily Dirr did have an online presence; she was a medical student in Ohio. Wright was convinced that she had enough information to publicly out Emily, but she wanted to speak to the hoaxer first. In a phone conversation that Wright recalls as surreal, Emily admitted in a quiet monotone that she had created the whole saga. The story, which she had begun in 2004, was a way to keep herself entertained, like fan fiction about a group of characters of her own invention.

This all started 11 years ago when I was a bored 11-year-old kid looking for an escape from the pain and heartache I saw in my own family, Emily Dirr wrote in a public apology posted on Wrights website. It started almost as fiction writing, but the more time I spent escaping to it, the more real it became. I am so sorry it hurt so many real families, and so many people out there.

Hearing this, some group members were out for blood. They wanted the young woman prosecuted for fraud, for impersonating someone else, for whatever they could get her for.

One of the loudest and angriest voices in the Warrior Eli Hoax group was an odd character named Father James Puryear. According to Puryears Facebook profile, he was a 16-year-old single father who hoped to become a preacher. He was the one who found the Dirrs old Photobucket account, which had turned out to be an important clue. He also professed to be shocked and horrified that anyone would pretend to be someone else online. But in the groups first week, when members started introducing themselves, he posted this long, insane thing, Wright recalls. I was raped when I was this age. Then I had a kidnapping, and then my twin did this. Just like every kind of red flag. Her suspicions aroused, Wright asked for photos of Puryears two kids. Puryear sent a photo of a kid wearing a Halloween mask. Wright said she did not believe the photographs were real and Puryear did not send any more. Wright booted Puryear out of the group. Barely two weeks later, Father James Puryear who turned out to be a 24-year-old Massachusetts woman named Carissa Hads was arrested in West Virginia. Hads later pleaded guilty to posing as Puryear in order to have sex with a 15-year-old girl she had been talking to over the internet for more than a year.

Carissa


Carissa Hads posed as a man to groom a 15-year-old girl. Photograph: Warrior Eli Hoax Group

After that, Wright made sure to verify group members real identities. But the idealism of those first few weeks was shattered. It made me think about, like, who are these people that Im sharing stuff with in here? Because it felt great at first we were all great friends, Wright says, and sighs. Im too trusting.

* * *

For some people, cancer has acquired a strange allure. In John Greens blockbuster young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, tragic, beautiful young people with terminal diagnoses are alternately funny and profound as they face their fates. Online, some cancer victims have even become celebrities. Since the early days of the internet, patients and their families have shared their stories online as a way to cope with the isolating effects of illness. There are hundreds of these pages on the internet, most of them genuine, the great majority on Facebook Prayers for Shane, Hope for Hannah, Rally for Rowan. Many of these groups originated as a way to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues, but it does not take long for strangers to start tuning in, too. The most popular cancer blogs have tens of thousands of followers. They fundraise by selling T-shirts and bumper stickers, and their stories sometimes become famous enough to merit articles in mainstream magazines.

This attention has inspired people eager for the privileged status of the sick the sympathy, if not the suffering, of real cancer patients and their courageous battles. The heroic image that cancer survivors increasingly have is attractive to factitious disorder patients, Marc Feldman writes in his book scholarly Playing Sick.

In September 2012, Taylor Swift wrote a song dedicated to Ronan Thompson, a three-year-old boy who died of neuroblastoma, featuring lyrics taken from Ronans mothers popular blog. After Swifts song was released on iTunes, dozens of blogs by mothers with dying children started popping up many of them actually written by Swift-obsessed high-school students hoping to get their idols attention with a tragic story of their own. (The Warrior Eli Hoax team investigated many of these blogs, though they generally did not publicly post information about teenage hoaxers.)

By the summer of 2012, Wrights inbox was filling up with emails reporting potential hoaxers. She shared the details with the Facebook group, which began investigating them as well. Diana Almanza, a stay-at-home mother in North Carolina, joined the group because she wanted to see how the Emily Dirr story turned out. When someone sends you something that they think is fake, its very hard not to do something, she told me. You cant look away. It gets under your skin, I guess.

In


In John Greens novel The Fault in Our Stars, tragic, beautiful young people dying of cancer are alternately funny and profound as they face their fates. Photograph: Allstar/20TH Century Fox

As the months ticked by, the hundred-odd members of the Warrior Eli Hoax group honed their detective skills. They investigated a part-time rodeo rider with leukaemia; a terminally ill 21-year-old; and an amnesiac teenager undergoing extreme chemotherapy; each one was exposed as a fake. Some hoaxers hid behind made-up names and stolen photos; others posted under their own names and seemed to be faking cancer in real life, too.

Some of the hoaxes were pathetic the woman who posed as a dying (male) soccer player online stole photos of David Beckham for her fake Facebook profile but others were extensive and elaborate. Hoaxers shaved their heads and bought medical equipment on the internet to make their hospital selfies look more realistic. Many of these hoaxers were fooling lots of people. One had even been voted patient of the year by the US Leukemia & Lymphoma Society,another had used crowdfunding websites to raise thousands of dollars.

The detectives had learned to spot telltale signs alleged cancer patients who were bald, but still had their eyebrow hair; sick people supposedly on steroids who didnt have the typical puffy-faced appearance. Exposing a hoaxer sometimes took more than 100 hours of research, poring over potential fakers Facebook pages and trying to connect a name with an IP address. We always want to be 1,000% sure, said Almanza.

* * *

In January 2013, Taryn Wright invited a few dozen friends and family over to her house for a party. The occasion was an episode of the American news programme 20/20 about online hoaxers that featured the Dirr case and an interview with Wright, her first appearance on TV. Wright was relieved after watching the segment with her interview; it seemed to go well. Then the programme showed something Wright had not expected hidden camera footage of hoaxer Emily Dirr walking down the street. She looked frumpy and exhausted, about as far as you could get from JS Dirr, her swaggering online alter ego, with his tattoos and twins and many lovers. Wrights friends and relatives laughed and pointed.

Wright felt sick. She was just walking down the street eating a candy bar. Wright says. And everybody is laughing, saying, Look at her, she looks like a troll. Shes probably always eating a candy bar. But Im thinking, She probably worked hard to get the pieces of her life together and all of a sudden shes on Channel 7 on a Friday night, and everyone is laughing at her. What if it had been me? That would be horrible.

After the show aired, Wright became increasingly uncomfortable about the responsibility she was taking on by inserting herself into peoples lives. That autumn, the group researched a young woman whose Tumblr detailed her long battle with cancer and who was collecting money with a GoFundMe page. Her stories turned out to have been largely stolen from a legitimate cancer blogger. The group had figured out the name of the person behind the hoax and its members were close to building a convincing case against her when the woman announced on her Tumblr that she was going to kill herself.

From her research, Wright knew that the woman lived in Florida with her brother. When she started announcing concrete, specific plans, Wright decided she had to call the police. Hi, Im Taryn, and I live in Chicago, she told the police dispatcher, unsure whether they would dismiss her as some kook from the internet. She was pleased when they took her report seriously. After the holidays, Wright contacted the womans brother to check up on her. He said that she had been taken in for treatment on Christmas Eve; to Wright, this felt like a victory. (Since then, she has reported at least three other possibly suicidal hoaxers to police.)

Wright also spent hours talking to hoax victims. Id out people, and then Id feel responsible. I wanted to make sure everyone was OK. I didnt feel like I could ignore emails from people who were angry or grieving. So I ended up talking on the phone a bunch after each case, she says. She even formed phone friendships with some of the hoaxers themselves, including a young woman in California named Jadzia, who had faked several pregnancies and one bout of cancer.

The more time Wright spent chatting with hoaxers, the more she felt convinced that they were suffering from mental illness. If someone is looking at their own life and thinking, I would rather write about living the life of somebody whos dying, somethings going on there. I dont think that theyre well. I dont think that a happy person goes and does this, Wright says. She learned to recognise the typical hoaxer profile: a socially isolated woman in her early 20s, often a little chunky, sometimes depressed. Wright, who has had her own struggles with weight and depression, saw a more desperate version of herself in some of these women.

Because Wright is the public face of the hoax-exposing world, many people friended her on Facebook including hoax victims, fellow detectives, and sometimes even the hoaxers themselves. Having all those people together in the same virtual room got contentious at times. Jadzia will like a photo I posted, and then other people will question me about it Is that the Jadzia you wrote about on your blog? And its just like, Yeah, you know, were friends, Wright says. Theyve done bad things, but I have a lot of friends whove done bad things, and its not like Im going to walk away from them. I guess its a little weird because Ive met them because they did bad things. But the way I see it, thats only one side of it.

* * *

I met Wright last summer at her parents house in the southern suburbs of Chicago. That day, she was looking into a woman who posted online as Diabetic Gymnast, and who had suffered an improbable number of tragedies multiple cancers, an abusive stepfather, rape, a rare blood disease in her 20-year-life. Wright skimmed the Diabetic Gymnasts stories of blood test results and suicide attempts with narrowed eyes. Something in her seemed to quicken when she turned up a potential clue: a reference to a specific hospital, a photograph that didnt look quite right.

Wright is sharp and self-deprecating, two qualities that come across strongly in her internet writing. She is also obsessive, with a precise recall for all the minute details of the cases she has worked on. Listening to her, I sometimes found myself lost amid all the overblown and oddly repetitive drama: Wait, whose twin was that? Was the adoption real or fake?

Taryn


Taryn Wright on the front steps of her home in Homewood, Illinois. Photograph: Max Herman/Demotix

People drawn to online sleuthing are a particular bunch, by turns noble and self-righteous, obsessed with justice and occasionally fanatical. Their interest in tragedies that do not directly relate to their lives at least until they put themselves in the middle of them can sometimes seem propelled by empathy, and other times by prurience. Inevitably, such online communities often hit by their own little cyclones of infighting and drama.

But for its first year of existence, it seemed as though the Warrior Eli Hoax group was different. After the strange incident with Father James Puryear/Carissa Hads, there were no fights or scandals. Wright did not even have to moderate the comments. But over time, that began to change. The tone of the comments became angrier: I want to punch her in the throat, one group member wrote about a hoaxer. I have nothing but contempt and disgust for her as a human being, wrote another. (Both of those commenters had lost close family members to cancer, Wright points out.)

Wright started hearing from people who were mentioned on the blog not just the hoaxers, but their friends or family members, people who were only tangential characters in one of the cases. It turned out that her blogs readers were contacting them via Facebook, sometimes angrily and other times just out of curiosity. People feel like they are entitled to the true story behind things, and dont see these stories as involving real people, said Wright. Its like everybody is the TV journalist who comes in with a camera and says, How do you feel about your kid getting hit by a car?

Around the same time, things began deteriorating among the core group of detectives in the Warrior Eli Hoax Facebook group. If Wright voiced sympathy for a hoaxer, other group members would post dozens of incensed replies. There was more and more of the Lets lynch her mentality [when the group identified a hoaxer]. I began to feel weird about posting personal stuff about other people in the big group because I wanted to make sure that the people who were helping investigate were on the same page that I was: that we were doing an educational thing, trying to help people get better not a vengeance thing, she said.

Talking about the unravelling of the Facebook group is clearly painful for Wright. She considered many of her fellow detectives to be friends. Most of them, she insisted, are good people. I understand why they got upset. They saw their own child go through leukaemia, and lose their hair, and die. So for them, somebody faking that and taking a childs pictures who died of cancer and saying that this is their child, that hits them in a different way than it hits me. So I dont feel like I could tell them, Dont feel like this, she said. At the same time, I dont want to feel like that.

* * *

The kindness of strangers has helped families pay for treatment, raised money for research and provided support in dark times. But, through her hoax-exposing work, Wright has also seen how the online cancer community can sometimes become vicious. As Wright became increasingly well-known online, she began to receive messages asking her to investigate parents. Many of these emails mentioned one woman in particular, who frequently posted on charity websites requesting video games for her special needs son, Jayden.I got emails about her, maybe 10 a day, saying look into this, look into that, Wright recalled.

But the problem was that Jaydens mother was not a hoaxer. Their concern wasnt the legitimacy, said Wright. Instead, Jaydens mothers critics accused her of asking for too many video games, and she had responded to their snide comments by lashing out. Such tantrums are deviant behaviour in a community that is all about gratitude, heart emojis and inspirational quotations about hope.

The conflict unsettled Wright. The community simply seemed not to like Jaydens mother and had turned on her. If the parent doesnt mind their Ps and Qs 100%, or is kind of a hillbilly and gets into screaming matches online, theyll start Facebook groups like, Ban Hope for Jayden, explained Wright. Or theyll Google this woman and find out shed been arrested in the 90s for something, and anytime she posts an update on her legitimately sick child, somebody will link to the arrest report from back to 1991. Its crazy.

Wright has herself become a target for abuse. In April 2013, she received an unexpected and unwelcome piece of mail: a certified letter from a lawyer threatening a lawsuit for defamation for her posts about a cancer faker named Chelsea Hassinger. But when she took a closer look, something about the letter seemed off. It looked as though it had been printed out on a regular piece of computer paper. It wasnt, like, attorney paper, she says. She Googled the name of the law firm and got no hits. But when she called the phone number listed on the letterhead, the voicemail informed her that she had reached the law firm of Gorman and Rickman. If it was a trick or a scam, it was certainly an elaborate one.

The more Wright looked into it, the more she was convinced it was fake. Still, she was spooked. The person behind it clearly wanted her to feel intimidated and they knew her home address. Not long after, Wright discovered the blogs: The Truth About Taryn Wright, Taryn Wright Is Wrong, among others. Whoever was behind these blogs had included unflattering photos from Wrights deleted weight loss blog and private information about her sister. The vengeful blogger even sent Facebook messages to all of Wrights friends, accusing her of being a liar.

The campaign of harassment lasted about four months before petering out. Wright says that the same person a hoaxers angry friend was behind the blogs and the fake lawyers letter but declines to say more for fear of inspiring more antagonism. But the experience clearly rattled her. I knew that there would be stuff that came out about me, and I was willing to take that risk, she says. But dont post stuff about my sisters. Dont post stuff about people who I care about.

As she dealt with the cancer communitys Mean Girl clique the vengeance-seeking detectives, her online stalker, the distraught hoax victims calling her up at all hours hoax-hunting was all starting to feel so much more messy than it had at the start. As she told me these stories, I imagined the hoaxers and the hoax-hunters both online late at night, the blue light of their computer screens casting an eerie glow on their faces as they immersed themselves in lives that were not their own.

In June 2013, Wright removed everyone from the Warrior Eli Facebook group except for four other people, including Diana Almanza. The remaining members are all dedicated posters with solid research skills, and, most importantly, they are all in agreement about how to handle hoaxers. These days, the group generally opts to research and resolve a case without posting it to the blog. Only particularly egregious hoaxes make it to the blog.

We dont want [hoaxers] villainised, says Almanza. They have a mental illness. They certainly do bad things, and there are times you research and you get really angry with them. But, my hope for all them is that, by being exposed and helping to get them treatment, they can move on and have happier, more productive lives.

Wright has not worked full-time since the blog took off. She has applied for plenty of jobs, but whenever she gets close there is a moment when her prospective boss gets a pained look and says something like, So, we Googled you

I asked Wright if she ever regrets her impulsive decision to start the blog that day in May, 2012. I dont know, she said, after a long pause. Im proud of what I did. I think that I went into it with good intentions. I think that I have continued with good intentions. Ive met some great people, people that will be my friends for ever. But at the same time, her own experiences of harassment have made her empathise with the hoaxers she has exposed. [The harassment] felt like such a violation to me how does it feel like to the people I write about? A lot of people have told me that its a totally different thing, because Im not doing anything wrong. But at the same time, its the same feeling. And I dont like the feeling.

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