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As a medium, the Internet struggles when dealing with some of the more complex concepts in society, like death, chronic illness and empathy. Social media users seem permanently ready to gleefully destroy someone, as much as they are permanently ready to offer support. Unfortunately, that support is often abused.

One story that recently had social media in a twist was that of Garnett Spears, a child that was allegedly poisoned by his mother. In the wake of the story, many began to charge that she had intentionally kept her child sick to get attention on social media. The term used by many is Munchausen by Internet.

Stories like these function in two ways when it comes to social networks. If there is an illness — or some other tragedy — users are supportive. They share the story, it goes viral and maybe it even appears on Buzzfeed or Upworthy, sites that make their stock and trade in tragedy and inspiration.

“How frequently are we asked to pray for people, or places, or things on social media? How many times each day do narratives surface in your Facebook feed of people or animals triumphing over physical hardship?” asks Roisin Kiberd, writing for Vice’s Motherboard. Kiberd adds that this is essentially encouraging Munchausen by Internet, because it lavishes attention on the sick, and those that are caring for them.

The second function of these stories is demonstrated when they are suspected as false. In these cases, social media is swift to punish the offender. Viral sites that ran with the original story will quickly debunk it for the extra traffic. Users buy into conspiracy theories and work hard to share the latest version of the story, which now gives the villain a face.

According to Daily Beast contributor Andy Hinds, it’s not clear Spears was an active blogger, or particularly prevalent on social media. The story has become more important than the truth and a story about a murderous mother seems to be more tantalizing that a story about a sick child.

Social media users are interested in both appearing to do the right thing and actually doing the right thing. There’s a strong sense of empathy on social networks, but it isn’t nuanced. There are heroes and villains, and when grey areas begin to develop the stories lose their heat and slip from public discussion.

Image credit: Bob Jagendorf