Social media creates a false sense of intimacy and, because we want to believe that people on the internet are who they say they are it’s still fairly easy for people to trick themselves into believing the beautiful stranger who’s taken an interest in them is made of flesh and blood and not ones and zeroes. In some cases, the former is true. But in others, like the one you’re going to read about now, the beautiful fashion blogger who’s always away on trips or getting sick right before a date is a fabrication of somebody with a lot of time on their hands.
BuzzFeed has done an excellent investigation into the life of Leah Palmer, a trendsetting fashionista who’s worked with Marc Jacobs and Cheryl Cole. Palmer had thousands of Twitter followers and was popular on Instagram. She was young, beautiful and charismatic. She had relationships with several men over Twitter and Instagram. And she never, ever existed. Or rather, the pictures of Leah Palmer were real, but the person behind her? No one knows who that is.
Palmer’s story goes back to 2012 when she (and her mother and at least one other creation) began engaging with others on social media. In fact, she became so close with a man named Justin (whose identity BuzzFeed won’t reveal) that he left his girlfriend for her without ever having met. Justin’s ex, having found that Palmer had been saying some incredibly nasty things about her online,went to the police to try to get it to stop, but was told there was nothing she could do. That’s when she became scared.
As Sonja looked through Leah’s tweets, she noticed that she kept being mentioned – as the “bitch” or “slut” who was stealing Leah’s man.
“She was calling me a slut and saying that I was a bitch for stealing her boyfriend, just making fun of me,” she says. “These things when you read them, especially for someone you don’t know, feels very creepy to me. I had chills running down my spine when I read it because I thought,You don’t even know me. Why are you so obsessed?”
But then things calmed down and Leah and Justin stopped seeing each other in 2014. A year later, Justin received the shock of his life: Leah Palmer had been stealing another woman’s pictures for years and recreating her life, stalking her on Instagram to find out where she’d been and making up stories about having been to the same place. The woman whose identity was stolen, Ruth Palmer — Leah had even taken her last name—, contacted Justin to tell him the truth. That’s only the beginning, though. Justin wasn’t Leah Palmer’s only online boyfriend: she also had relationships with a world-traveling DJ and a Big Brother contestant; she was friendly with celebrities. Unlike the lies you’d see on a show like Catfish, Leah carefully built an entire world for herself, abandoning it as soon as she felt someone was on to her. And even now that whoever’s creating all these accounts has been exposed, their behavior may not stop.
The story may not be over. Ruth says she would “put money” on there still being fake accounts out there still using her images. And in any event, this particular case of catfishing is only an extreme of a practice that is much more widespread than people realise. Several people BuzzFeed News spoke to who have tried to track down Leah Palmer themselves admitted to having created a fake social media account at some point, using pictures of someone else, whether it was due to teenage boredom, curiosity, or vanity.
While the entire piece is well worth your time (it is fucking chilling), the takeaway from Patrick Smith’s investigation into Leah’s imaginary life isn’t that she lied but how easy it is to believe what we want to believe.
In his piece, Smith points out that during the time Justin and Leah were together, they never once spoke via video call, even though most phones now come with some sort of video recording capability and many computers come with a webcam. Leah always claimed her webcam was broken (red flag!), but Justin never thought to question why she couldn’t just buy a new one. We’re far from the days when a webcam would cost a consumer more than a hundred dollars. You can sometimes even pick one up at Walgreens for $10, if you’re okay with the potato quality. But there’s something about believing that people say who they say they are (without proof) that’s so beguiling that many don’t question why they’ve never me their serious girlfriend or why she’s always getting ill right at the last minute. And perhaps, because they’ve built up an idea of what their online partner is like, actually meeting them might destroy the perfect idea they’ve had.
So if your handsome internet boyfriend who models for a living and never has time to meet you cancels another first date? It’s understandable. And when someone like Leah Palmer, with multitudes of friends, a jam-packed life, and a charisma that carries through the series of tubes that make up the internet showers you with attention, is her existence something you really question?
Image via Shutterstock
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