I just listened to the most FASCINATING podcast, “Sweet Bobby”. If podcasts are your thing, I suggest pausing and not reading on until you listen to it. If podcasts aren’t your thing, no worries! I’m gonna summarize it below.
This is a true story. A young woman part of the very specific British Punjabi Sikh Kenya immigrant community (that is Sikhs who live in England but were previously living in Kenya) is friended on Facebook by someone vaguely connected with her family. They drift in and out of contact for years, his life is filled with drama, medical emergencies, a marriage falling apart, and so on. Eventually he confesses his love for her and she, largely out of guilt because he is dying, agrees to start a long distance relationship. Soon this relationship becomes all encompassing, she cannot be away from her phone for more than 5 minutes without getting messages asking what she is doing and who she is with. She stops going out with friends because it makes her boyfriend jealous. She quits her job because he doesn’t want her working. Her self-esteem is devastated, he is constantly telling her that she isn’t good enough, isn’t worthy of him. And every time she tries to break free, he has a medical emergency and his relatives call her and tell her it is her fault, that her break up with him almost killed him. She loses weight, loses jobs, her whole life slowly falls apart and becomes fully focused on this one person who controls her completely. And then in the end, learns it is all a scam. Not only that, it is an 8 year scam perpetrated on her by her ten years younger female cousin, starting when the cousin was only 17.
Already I find so many interesting things here. The first thing is the reality that the internet IS real now. This isn’t catfishing like getting an email from a friend saying “send me a money order”. This is a legitimate online connection, a friend of a friend (her cousin stole the identity of a real person). And to make the fraud more “real”, her cousin created multiple further fake identities, a whole world of people with separate facebook accounts and images and so on who all further validated this person. The assumption is no longer “everyone on the internet is lying and/or anonymous”. The assumption is “everyone on the internet is living their real life, because real life IS online”. Employers are going to look for an online trace of you when considering you for a job, new friends will search for you, and you will use your online identity in the real world too. Something as simple as, I have a cousin who works at a climbing gym. She is a climber in real life. Her online photos of her climbing various things are part of what supports her professional life. Everyone has something like that. Your volunteer work, your crafting hobby, your writing, it’s all part of your online presence. In this case, the victim of the fraud worked in PR and on weekends hosted a local Bhangra music radio show. Her Facebook presence was a vital part of both those worlds.
This is not a story of “oh you foolish victim”, this is a story of “wow, what a dedicated evil genius criminal”. It’s really HARD to fake someone out on the internet at this point, you have to be super dedicated to make it work.
Let’s look at DCIB, for instance. If you are a “lurker” or new here, I will reassure you, we are all real people. When I started blogging, I tried to be “anonymous” for a while. And then I thought, “this is silly”. So I make my real name available, my real resume, my real home, my real everything. It only takes ten minutes of research to tie almost anyone back to their real world identity from online. And if takes more than ten minutes, the response is likely to be suspicion of the online identity, that is a person who is lying about something in their life. All of my regular commentators, they are real people. I send them Christmas cards to real addresses, and I’ve met almost all of them in real life too. I also get real life photos, real life links to real life events, all that stuff. And I think this is the norm online now? People don’t bother trying to hide, not really. And honestly, I think of my DCIB friends who I happen to have met online as just as close to me as my friends who I first met in the “real world” and now communicate with online. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way until heard this story, of someone who was faked not through an anonymous simple connection, but an elaborate lengthy fraud. That’s what it has to be now, an elaborate lengthy fraud, online anonymity doesn’t exist.
The other thing I find interesting is the effect of being part of this very specific community. She trusted “Bobby” a little more because he was part of her tiny closely connected community. There was a sense of artificial connection. He was “one of us”. This is how minority and/or immigrant communities survive, trusting and supporting each other so that they all rise together. And on the other hand, she found it a little more believable that he trusted her. If he sent a message saying “I feel like you are the only one who understands me”, it could actually be true! Same age, part of the same tiny community, and also both successful outside of the community, part of the larger culture and struggling to balance it.
This is all very familiar from movies, right? Including the fraud aspect. I’m thinking of something like Mubarakan where this small community was interwoven constantly through friendships and family, and that allowed “love fraud” to flourish. You already know everything about the other person and their family without needing to research it, and everything about the role you are supposed to play. Most of the time this sort of fraud in real life would only have a lessor effect. Say, someone lying about their age/income/background/whatever in order to make an engagement happen. But you know the lie you are supposed to make, right? Because everyone has the same context. And that’s what happened here. Saying “my marriage is falling apart, I’m ashamed, I don’t know what to do, I can’t talk to anyone about it” has an immediate effect on the target because she knows the context of that.
Okay, now guess what happened when it came out that the now-28 year old very intelligent successful young woman had been scamming her now-38 year old cousin whose career and whole life had fallen apart because of the scam?
Yes, that’s right, the family was VERY concerned about covering it all up for the sake of their Honor. The cousin’s father came to them and asked them not to be upset because of his high blood pressure (also a filmi thing). Meanwhile, the victim’s father was very sad for the family of the cousin, her grandfather and father, because they must be so ashamed of what she has done. No sympathy for his own daughter, no anger at the young cousin. The young cousin is now engaged and the shining pride of the community, her life has continued unaffected, she seems to feel no guilt or shame about her actions. The victim is in hiding, afraid to go to community events because she can’t face seeing the cousin.
Part of this is just sociopathic behavior, right? The victim is a normal healthy person and therefore feels emotion about this whole thing. When she found out the truth, she collapsed to the floor, and then vomited. Which is actually a normal reaction to learning a 17 year old girl had been torturing her for ten years. Meanwhile, the probably sociopathic cousin doesn’t even say “I’m sorry”. Seemed to have no awareness of how extreme her behavior was.
But it is sociopathic behavior taking advantage of an unfair society. So long as she was proper, successful, outwardly “good”, her family and society would support her. Because she is presenting a face to the world that fits what they want. Even though she is in the wrong, even though everyone KNOWS she is in the wrong, the key is to avoid embarrassment. It is the victims fault for going to the police, for making a “fuss”, and now for participating in this podcast.
That’s very familiar from the Indian film industry, isn’t it? It’s what’s going on in Kerala right now. The anger goes first towards the person who breaks the conspiracy of silence, to the person who makes us “look bad” to outsiders. Not to the person who actually did the offense. I don’t think this is unique to the Indian community by any means. But it is specific to a particular kind of community. High enough that they have a reputation to protect, but low enough that they are still worried about protecting that reputation. Keep messy disputes within the family, don’t tear people down, don’t go public. I’m not going to say whether or not someone should go public with internal issues from those communities, I’m not qualified. But I think I can say that I believe when someone DOES go public, it is important to put the blame on the perpetrator of the crime for “shaming” the community, not on the victim for going public. Does that make sense?
And then there’s the final thing to discuss which the podcast itself can’t answer, and maybe no one can answer. Why would a 17 year old quite proper scholastically successful young woman start an online scam against her decade older cousin? Why would she slowly build this into an emotionally abusive relationship, watching in real life as her cousin’s life fell apart in every way while continuing the online abuse? Why would she write love letters, have all night whispered phone calls, dedicate what must have been the majority of her time into keeping this scam going?
Is it jealousy, that she wanted to tear down the older cousin she admired and enjoyed watching her fall in real life as she succeeded? Was it love, a twisted form of love that she felt she could only express through a fake online presence and which frustration eventually caused to become abusive? Or was it pure sociopathic enjoyment? She started on a whim and kept going because she liked it, she liked causing constant emotional breakdowns and misery through her elaborate games?
There is only one version of this that has any relevance to their social situation. If it was a twisted form of love, if this young woman had homosexual feelings for her cousin, then there would be no acceptable way for her to process them within the context of the Punjabi Sikh Kenyan British community. In that case, the unhealthy repression and self-hatred could, MAYBE, explain how this started.
I don’t know, it’s just a WEIRD story. And I wanted to talk about it with y’all and see what you thought about these questions I ended up with:
- Do we think of online people as anonymous any more? Or has the real world and the online world fully merged? To put it simply, do you think of your DCIB friends as anonymous typers, or as real people whose lives you know in detail?
- How does this story relate to the very small specific British Sikh community that we have seen represented many times in films?
- Do you have ANY idea why a 17 year old girl would start this, and then keep it going through her real life college, career, success, and finally romance and engagement?
- Any other questions that occur to you for us to talk about!