Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The strange, fictional life and death of Dana Dirr

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday to a story that almost defies belief -- that a person (at this point, it's unknown if the perpetrator was male or female) invented a family, complete with a loving mother and father, grandparents, and ten kids (one on the way).  Not only that, but one of the kids, Eli, was suffering from a rare form of cancer,  but was approaching it so valiantly that they had nicknamed him "Warrior Eli."

Apparently the whole thing started several months ago, when "Dana and J. S. Dirr" appeared on Facebook and in the blogosphere, telling their stories of how they were dealing with the specter of childhood cancer.  "Dana" began to post daily, and included photographs of herself, Eli, and the rest of the family, and hundreds of people (eventually thousands) friended her on Facebook and subscribed to her blog.  People began to ask where they could donate money to help this poor family, and the American Cancer Society and such grassroots family aid organizations as Alex's Lemonade Stand became involved.  "Warrior Eli's Facebook Page" went viral, with people checking it every day to see how the brave little boy was doing.

Then, on the evening before Mother's Day, came a horrific announcement on Warrior Eli's page:
URGENT PRAYERS ARE NEEDED for Eli's mom Dana!  She was hit head on by a driver who was driving way too fast and crossed the center line.  She was flown to the hospital where she was supposed to be on duty tonight as a trauma surgeon.  Dana is almost 35 weeks pregnant right now so please pray for her and the baby!  Dane (Dana's dad/Eli's grandpa)
Then, later that evening:
Dana just gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  J. and Dana had planned on naming her Evelyn and calling her Evie but they hadn't decided on a middle name yet.  J. has decided to call her Evelyn Danika -- Danika after her beautiful mother who we have always called Dana.  Dana is not doing well.  She has severe bleeding in multiple parts of her brain, she has several skull fractures, her C1-C4 vertebrae are crushed, and she has complete severance of her spinal cord at the C1-C2 level.  Please pray for comfort for Dana, J., Connor, and all 11 of Dana and J.'s beautiful babies. Dane (Dana's dad/Eli's grandpa)
And on Mother's Day morning came the dreadful announcement, of which I excerpt only three lines:
Last night at 12:02 AM I lost the love of my life.  I lost my wife, the mother of my children, and my best friend... She waited until two minutes past midnight on Mother's Day to leave us.
The outpouring of grief from all of the people who had followed this family's ongoing struggle was overwhelming.  But at this point, a few people smelled a rat.  The fact that a grieving father with eleven children (and a new baby) would get onto Facebook to announce his wife's death, only a few hours after it had occurred, seemed a little hard to believe.  So some people started digging, beginning with trying to find out if a pregnant mother of eleven had died from injuries received in a car accident on Mother's Day.  When no such case could be found, they begin to question other details of the situation, and after some intensive research, they found...

... the entire thing was made up.

There was no Dirr family, no Warrior Eli, no brave mother and father fighting for their kid.  The photographs on the Facebook page and blog had been lifted from all over the internet, many of them from family pictures posted by a South African blogger, Tertia Loebenberg, who writes at So Close.  (Here's her take on the affair.) 

Within hours of the hoax becoming public, the perpetrator(s) had taken down the Warrior Eli Facebook page and Dana's blog page.  And it seems like whoever engineered the whole thing is laying very, very low.

After getting over my simple, gut-level emotional reaction to all of this -- my main feeling being disgust -- I asked two questions.  First, what on earth could motivate someone to do something like this?  It is unclear to me if this was a simple attempt at internet fraud -- most of the money that was donated for Warrior Eli was given to charitable organizations, not directly to the family.  It seems more likely that this is a case of Münchausen's By Proxy, where a disturbed individual creates the impression that his/her child is ill because of the attention and sympathy that it garners for the entire family.  The elaborate nature of the Dirr hoax -- including dozens of apparently fictional family members and friends -- was only possible because of the anonymity conferred by the internet, and is now being called an excellent example of a new psychological disorder, Münchausen's By Internet.

My second question, which is why this whole story appears on my blog, is: how do we apply the principles of skepticism to what we read online?  Most of us, myself included, are fairly trusting, assuming that the majority of humanity is honest the majority of the time.  We all know that hoaxes and frauds occur, not to mention the fact that people can be delusional (witness the subjects of the majority of my blog posts).  But when someone posts something online that seems plausible, and (especially) yanks on the heartstrings, we get sucked in.  I suspect that if I had heard of "Warrior Eli" before the whole thing had been revealed as a fraud, I'd have been fooled just like thousands of others were.

The bottom line is: when you engage your emotions, don't disengage your brain.  The Warrior Eli case was cracked by people who recognized when the inventor of the Dirr family pushed the whole thing a little too far, straining credulity to the point that it began to splinter.  I'm not advising you to be suspicious -- heaven knows, we don't need any more cynics in the world.  But do be careful, and in this and in all things -- keep thinking, and keep asking questions.


  1. I wonder what "sixth sense" we will develop when it comes to online material for smelling the proverbial rat? We have had millions of years to evolve our mechanisms for sniffing out danger in the analog world, but the digital age is still so new, and changing so fast - how fast can we keep up? When our social interactions are digitally mediated, what happens to the part of the brain that uses ALL the senses and relies a great deal on physical proximity to assess trustworthiness vs. unreliability? I read a great book called The Gift of Fear that's all about using our intuitive ability to sense danger - but going digital short-circuits almost all of that.

    I suppose with situations like the Warrior Eli hoax, we have to rely on the fact that lies spun out over time become more and more elaborate and eventually implode as the liar can't keep all the details straight, and contradictions emerge. So it's a much more consciously cognitive approach. Applied skepticism, perhaps.

  2. p.s. I think I'm going to start using the captcha word verification thingies as names in my yet-unwritten science fiction novel :-)

  3. Scammers were successfully getting organizations to assist them before the internet. While I agree with E. Phantzi about the face-to-face, I believe that good hucksters could probably "work me" better in person, using all of those other senses against me (think car salesman).

    As a product of the digital age, I actually feel a bit safer using the internet. The hucksters are anonymous, but I can be too.

    That and avoiding social networking almost completely.

    1. Read further into this story and... wow. As the outing blogger quipped "Whoever came up with this hoax must need spreadsheets to follow it."

      What a tangled web this hoax is. I immediately gravitate towards the sheer volume of premeditation necessary... and I'm stuck on that thought. Just going through all of the props that were created, let alone all the picture stealing... This woman spent thousands and thousands of hours over the course of 8 years maintaining and bolstering this fabrication. If this young woman had devoted this much effort, capability, and earnestness to a noble pursuit, she could have done something amazing.

      HBO used to run a series called "Autopsy" (Dr. Michael Baden is a prodigy) and Münchausen's By Proxy Syndrome was a frequent topic, wherein mothers were ending the lives of their children for the sympathy it garnered. I remember one retelling of a woman who killed 9 of her own children, one at a time, within the first year of their birth, before the truth was discovered.

      Humans never cease to amaze me, on both sides of the good/evil spectrum.

  4. It was a woman named Emily Dirr. Yeah she used her own last name. This complex hoax went on for over 6 years