A pregnant young woman spent months blogging about her compelling personal journey of anguish. You see, her unborn child (named April, after the month she was due), had a rare and fatal birth defect. Tiny April's brain would not form properly, and doctors said she would likely die before birth or shortly thereafter. Still, the plucky and courageous "April's Mom" was determined to bring the child in accord with her beliefs.
At first the blog drew only a trickle of readers, but soon the word spread and tens of thousands of people visited the site to read her latest blog, detailing doctor's visits and her friends' wonderful support. Mothers of sick and dying children sent prayers and gifts, offering encouragement and sympathy.
Last Sunday when April was finally born (several weeks late), she tragically died within hours. What few suspected was that it was all a lie; April did not exist. She was the fictional creation of her "mother," Becca Bueshausen.
Every detail of April's life and death had been made up; all the tears that had been shed, all the prayers that had been sent, were for a tiny child that never existed. When the lie was exposed, the blog's readers reacted with outrage, feeling betrayed and suckered. Bueshausen offered an apology on her blog and has been laying low since then.
The "April's Mom" story is only one of many such hoaxes. "I’m going to die! I’m going to die!" Kim Stacy, a columnist for the "Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer," wrote in 1999. "I have terminal brain cancer. I was told I had about 10 months to a year to live.” Stacy wrote a series of five articles for the rural Kentucky newspaper about her experience, recounting painful, moving details of her cancer diagnosis and treatment. Many readers followed her columns closely, and were shocked when Stacy admitted that the disease and treatment were lies. The admission came after being confronted with suspicions by another newspaper she worked at previously, where she also lied about having cancer.
One main theme in such hoaxes is that they deal with diseases. This ruse is especially effective because it's an issue that most people can relate to; almost everyone has either had a serious disease or knows a friend or family member who has. Hoaxers like Beushausen exploit their readers' uncertainty and fear about their health to add credibility to their stories.
Most such hoaxes are done for attention, money, and sympathy. In some cases, however, there's a political angle as well. In this case, Beushausen was promoting her Christian beliefs and anti-abortion agenda. She described at length and in detail the hard choices she struggled with, and anti-abortion readers praised her for standing by her strong Christian values.
The "April's Mom" blog was as much about religion as it was about pregnancy.
Ironically, Beushausen used much of her apology to lash out at anonymous bloggers who she claimed were impersonating her online, e-mailing people and posting information in her name. She also stated that the blog was about "life and issues and faith, all things that are important to me." Faith, of course, is belief without evidence — the same belief without evidence that led thousands of people to believe her lies. The "April's Mom" blog did indeed contain a lesson about faith, one that Bueshausen did not intend.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about hoaxed blogs and news stories in his book “Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.” His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.