”Jack, my friend, I have something you need to see, about who Veronika Larsson really is. No more here - contact me in Second Life if you're interested in talking about the girl I called K.”
If anything, my story about the fake online personality Veronika Larsson has resulted in its emails. I’ve received so many emails. Emails about how well written and interesting it was, how it sucked and that I should go searching for a new job as well as fascinating questions about who she really is. One reader had added all the claims about Veronika’s life story and concluded that it must be the owner of a well-known media company that was behind the fake person online. Another believed that it was a well-known conman from Malmö. A third recognized Veronika from a Norwegian’s theft of a Swedish punk singer’s identity.
My aim has been to follow every lead.
That’s why the email from a man we can call Tom lured me to restart my old account on Second Life. I logged in and began looking for him. It wasn’t hard. Second Life is nowadays more or less a ghost world.
The virtual reality game that allows the user to create a digital body reached its peak in 2007. Then foreign minister Carl Bildt started a Swedish embassy in the game and hundreds of thousands of people logged in every day. But since then it has gone downhill, and in an article from December 2012 Hanna Fahl wrote in Dagens Nyheter that the world was an empty and deserted place, a “doomed world”. But that information had obviously not reached Veronika who at the same time as the article was published posed for a virtual photo laying on a lion statue in fictitious city Warrumbungles.
A few minutes after I logged in a chat message appeared on my screen. It was an offer to teleport to where Tom was.
”Join me in Rhianna,” he wrote.
When I arrived there I looked over my shoulder nervously to see if any of my colleagues were peaking at my screen. Rhianna turned out to be an island specifically devoted to virtual prostitution. Escort Island. In front of me was an avatar with black, flowing hair and an open shirt showing a broad manly chest. It was Tom.
“Veronika worked here. For quite a while. That's where I met her. It looked a lot different then,” he told me in the game’s chat.
We chatted. He said he was well known in his field, and estimated that ”more than three quarters of Second Life’s adult industry” knew his name. He had received the English version of my article in a message on Facebook from someone who was also playing the game. When he read it he recognized Veronika instantly. He had met her here, in 2009, and at once understood that she was ”something else than the regular girls who work here.”
“She was educated, better spoken. Liberal. She was into avant garde music - she introduced me to Lykki Li. She could twist dumb guys around her finger in minutes. A real dangerous kid. Her avatar was the prettiest pile of pixels most guys had ever seen,” he writes.
It was a bizarre conversation, but not the first bizarre conversation I’d had about Veronika. So I kept listening. They had hung out for a while but he didn’t want to pay for sex so they stayed some kind of friends. But when a known Second Life-user picked up Tom during a Halloween party Veronika became mad.
“But man, if you know Veronika, you know that was unsatisfactory - no way I wanted her mad at me. So we have it out, which ends up with me telling her flat out ”Look, you're not sleeping with me or paying my way, so you don't get any input as to who I sleep with unless you want to be her.” Her choice, and she reverted to her true nature. Her time wasn't free,” he told me.
That was an end to a passionate relationship. Veronika maligned Tom, he lost some friends, and the last thing he heard about her was a rumour that she had ”retired”. It seems like he misses her a little.
“I can't stress enough how literate and talented Veronika was at text cybersex. There are plenty of them around. If you have 2000 linden dollars (the currency used in Second Life) you can spend 30 minutes finding out. But ones as good as Veronika are very, very rare,” he wrote and a sigh could almost be heard through the screen.
Veronika has touched so many people. It was apparent when The Guardian, the newspaper that wrote about her comments about sexism in the gaming industry in August and thus started the process that ended with me exposing her as a fake, published an excuse for having believed in what she wrote without double checking the claims. ”The Guardian could and should have done more to ensure that this person was real before using her comments in an article,” they wrote.
In the commentary field they appeared, the people who had written alongside Veronika and would miss her.
One described her as ”very intelligent, fierce and obviously Marxist.”Another said that she was one of The Guardian’s ”best commentators ever”, and likened the paper’s treatment of her with how Barack Obama had dealt with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
Others haven’t just admired her from afar, but have actually gotten close to her personally. One woman spoke several times with her on the phone in 2009, one man flirted for a long time with her other alias Stacey Anne Malloy. And then there was M. He refuses to give me his real name but he contacted me to tell me about how he met Veronika on Myspace. It was about the same time that writer Richard Cox did, but unlike Cox he didn’t suspect anything untoward about her until my article found its way to his screen.
“As soon as I saw the title "Who is Veronika?" I was like "oh shit!". Then I saw the pictures in the article and I can't forget that face,” he wrote to me in an email.
After a while chatting on Myspace they exchanged phone numbers and soon they were talking regularly on the phone. Her voice sounded just like the recording attached to the article, he says. They discussed everything from politics to music and Veronika again introduced a friend to a Swedish band – The Deportees. They talked about meeting for brunch and one M even called her when he was drunk.
“She found it funny when we later talked.”
Then M drops a bomb. He has a name for someone who seems to be the person behind Veronika.
I gave myself a month to uncover Veronika’s true identity, and find the way to her. Exposing the name was never really interesting, it wouldn’t be motivated by the things she has actually done. No, the only thing I wanted was to have an answer to one simple question: Why? And with the name M had found I hoped to do that.
Veronika has seldom been careless when discussing with people on the Internet, but one thing seems to be real kryptonite for her secret affairs: Attaching documents in emails. In a music file she sent to Richard Cox she exposed another email address that looked like it belonged to another person, and when she sent a Word document containing links to songs by The Deportees she messed up again. In the Word document’s metadata were the first and last names of the person owning the program.
Let's call him Steven. I’m pretty sure that Steven is Veronika.
Steven is in his 50’s and works as a school librarian somewhere in Kalifornia, USA. He has travelled around and worked in some of the areas that Veronika has been to and his work as a school librarian gives access to computers and the time that would be needed to create Veronika. But there are also other things that tie him to Veronika.
All the accounts and websites that Veronika had disappeared rather quickly after my story was published. All except one. In a quite bare user account her name appears, a photo of Tiffany Olson (whose photos Veronika used as her own) as well as a user name linked directly to a school where Steven has been employed.
IP-addresses that Richard Cox could link to Veronika can also be linked to the area around this school.
In different local papers’ online commentary fields Steven has been an active writer, and his tone is very similar to Veronika’s.
Furthermore there’s an email address, that Steven has stated has his own, is linked to a woman’s name and only appears as a user account on Second Life. This user account also has a style of writing that is similar to Veronika’s. And there are a few photos of a dark haired girl, whose name doesn’t appear on Google.
So I called Steven.
He absolutely didn’t want to talk to me, but said that he had no idea about what I wanted or talked about and hung up rather quickly. Then I emailed him the information I had and he replied accusing me of being an Internet fraudster. I replied with a photo of myself and an edition of Metro and my identity card for the newspaper, but got no reply. However, he emailed my editor-in-chief Linus Paulsson. He wrote that he sold a laptop six years ago and had since then been subjected to different types of attempted fraud online. He gave two concrete examples, when and in what US cities where it was supposed to have happened.
Then I called those police stations.
They had no record of these crimes being reported. I informed Steven of this in an email, assured that his name wouldn’t be mentioned and that all I wanted to know was why he had done it. He then sent his last email and stated that he would report me to the police for harassment and that Homeland Security probably would forbid me to never enter the US again. I had sent him eight emails, he had replied in five and now he’d had enough. I sighed and gave up.
Some weeks later I telephoned the police station in his hometown. There was no report about me.
I will never get an answer to the question why Steven created Veronika, not today. Veronika herself is missing. On her commentary page at The Guardian there’s a small entry that says ”Activity history last 30 days”, and lists the few comments she has written during this time. Since 1 October, when my article about her was published, the number has shrunk from 66 to 22. It will soon be down to nothing. When I look at this I wonder if I’ve killed Veronika for nothing. If she gave more ideas and discussions than she stole in identities and being fake.
And I wonder whom the female voice belongs to. Steven’s voice, as I heard it over the phone, was somewhat high pitched and could have been made to sound like a young woman’s.
Or, it could be that more people are involved.
Author and information architect Jonas Söderström has followed the story about Veronika very closely and was the first one to suggest that something bigger was behind Veronika. He pointed out that the US military has bought software for ”sock puppet management” from Ntrepid, that is the creation and running of made up identities online to either push an agenda or gather information. The project seems to have started in 2007, at the same time when Veronika appeared.
A late night I’m chatting with him on Facebook.
”Now I will write what I’m NOT going to claim is the truth about Veronika,” he says and continues: ”Just what’ll be the plot in my next novel.”
Then he asks me to imagine a company that does ”sock puppet management” for the military, and how a gang of it-dudes are instructed to created a prototype to test the system. Because they aren’t that great at creating strong and credible stories they ask a young writer to do it for them. This goes on for six years and when they decide to shut down the prototype they want it to be done quietly.
The rest is history.
If this is Veronika’s history we don’t know. But what’s true and not true in this story isn’t just hard to make out but also completely irrelevant. Maybe this reminder about Veronika that is most important, that our traditional quest for the truth in a time where whole lives can be led outside the physical world isn’t as logical. Because what could be a massive spy mission, sanctioned on the highest level of the world’s only superpower, may also just be one lonely person’s search for intimacy, if only digital intimacy.
Tiffany Olson still gets messages from people who have chatted with Veronika and Stacey Anne, but they are getting fewer. One day I asked her if something was new. Nothing, she replied.
“And I'm ok with that. Ready to be normal again. Ha.”
SEE MORE PICTURES OF VERONIKA'S JOURNEY THROUGH THE WEB