She called herself TheIneffableSwede. It’s a name that is easy to Google, and in that I find a special charm. Sure, most journalists think it’s fun to turn over every stone in their research and so do I, however when I’m about to trace footprints online I choose to hunt a, say an af Praat rather than a Svensson any day. Less time spent on dead ends means more time for the exciting ones. That’s why I was happy that she called herself TheIneffableSwede.
“About 978 results“. That’s a Google-search result for that signature right now. Almost all of them stem from one specific event that is also the reason why I know she exists. It is the article in The Guardian – “Sexism and abuse isn't only on Twitter: one woman’s gaming experience”.
The British newspaper had published an article about the threatening sexism that had been directed at an activist on Twitter and in the commentary field TheIneffableSwede appeared. She claimed she had been subjected to something similar – in an online game.
“When I played and won, which I almost always did, some of the male players used to threaten to rape, maim or even kill me” she wrote in The Guardian’s commentary field. Her experiences came from a long time invested in an un-named role-playing game online with millions of players, and after having been ignored systematically by the game’s moderators she brought her complaints to the game’s CEO.
He reacted by cutting her off – he was tired of “the nagging about this problem”.
The claim was so remarkable that it was repeated almost verbatim on the Guardian’s own gaming blog, shared thousands of times on social media and became a subject of debate on several different British gaming forums.
It reached my desk in the morning on Wednesday August 7. A few hours later I tweeted this.
härregud vilken jävla story jag kanske precis grävt upp— Jack Werner (@kwasbeb) August 7, 2013
That's swedish, and it means "Oh my gawd, I might have found myself a hell of a story".
Almost two months later I now know for a fact that it really was a hell of a story. It grew more than I could imagine. It has made me forever view people online differently. It has led to me sending one of my weirdest Facebook-messages ever. But. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before the link to The Guardian’s article landed in my computer it had passed through my news editor who wanted me to find TheIneffableSwede and interview her about the whole thing.
To be able to find her I would have to read through the more than 3600 comments TheIneffableSwede had written on The Guardian’s website during her eight months’ activity there, find and collect every single small detail she shared about her real life, behind the screen. A reference to a hometown here, a name of a friend there. I should be able to find something.
It took a few hours, I lost track of time and happened to work some overtime. In the afternoon that Wednesday I ended up with a three-page Word document. And, something of a new idol.
TheIneffableSwede’s real name was Veronika Larsson and she was the most interesting commentator I’ve ever stumbled across. She was born in Malmö, had studied Economics at UC Berkeley in California and now studied at the London School of Economics. She had lived in eleven countries, spoke five languages, was my age but far more well educated than I, was a feminist, member of the Green Party and a piercing critic of practically everything under the sun. She could write things like:
“One of my friends once asked me: ´Why are you such a misanthrope? My answer? I've been paying attention.”
About one opponent’s comments she wrote: “Don’t start a fan now, it may blow away your arguments.”
On another occasion, in an article about people who fake identities online, she wrote, somewhat cryptic:
“What if it would suddenly appear that I’m actually TheIneffableNorwegian?”
Her tiny profile picture at The Guardian shows a blonde, seemingly confident young woman with a wide smile looking back at me. For somebody who has trudged through an innumerable amount of depressing commentaries, each one dripping with more inertly worded simplicity than the other; Veronika “TheIneffableSwede” Larsson was a breath of fresh air. I realized I was really looking forward to interviewing her.
My hope that she would be generous with personal details in her comments came through. Her mother was supposedly a psychiatrist and her father a university professor in Economics, her grandparents grew up at a large farm outside Lund and then it was her cousins: “My cousins Elin and Sven were both in the army and were wounded in Afghanistan” she wrote at one point. “Elin had minor injuries, and Sven more serious. Today Elin is a police officer and Sven works as a dairy farmer.”
If I chose the right search words now it should be easy to find solid ways of contact – preferably a phone number – to Veronika.
I have a rectangular notebook on my desk. On one of its pages you can follow the hunt for Veronika how it played out, via accounts on a number of social media channels. Each time I’ve been able to link them to one another I have connected them with a line on the paper. At the top of the paper the word, circled, “GUARDIAN”. That is the ground zero.
Follow the line from here and you’ll reach “YOUTUBE” and “GOOGLE PLUS”.
They were easy to find. The Youtube account comes up on the first result page when you Google “Veronika Larsson”, and because Youtube accounts are designed to be closely linked to the user’s Google Plus accounts I quickly found that too.
However, there are few guarantees that people who use these services check their inboxes. I wanted to find more ways to contact Veronika and kept searching for clues to move on. And in the only Youtube clip she had uploaded I found one. A blonde animated woman, dancing in a dark room with a water fall raining down behind her. I recognized the setting immediately.
On my notebook page I have drawn a line from “GOOGLE PLUS” down to a circle in which it says “SECOND LIFE”.
Because Veronika had an account there as well. Among her usual rhetorical pirouettes – for example a Blade Runner-reference describing how long she had been playing Second Life – I found more images of her, images I saved diligently. With the headline “Am I Really Real?” she seemed to question her own identity. She delivered the answer to that rhetorical question herself in the following comment: “No, I’m not. I am actually a program in The Matrix.”
And then I found the best link so far. I clicked on it. From “SECOND LIFE” the line continues down to “VERONIKAS WEB PAGE”.
In a pink frame, in the top left corner a mouth with lips pursed for a kiss, and to the right a large photo of a girl, slightly younger but undoubtedly the same girl I had seen up till then, I was welcomed to Veronika Larsson’s personal homepage.
I twitched when the message began in my headphones that I had forgotten I was wearing. “HEY! This is Veronika and welcome to my web page!”
The voice was a little thick and had a slight accent. It continued saying that the webpage would be updated with photos of friends and family from time to time, and the message concluded with wishing the visitor a “beautiful day!”
Under “Biografi” the same story I was already familiar with was repeated. Other links took me to a dozen or more photos of Veronika at parties and with friends, young and happy. Here and there on the webpage a Hemingway-quote appeared.
It was hereabouts the first oddities appeared. On top of the five languages she already knew she also studied Cantonese, according to the website. But in The Guardian’s commentary field she wrote that Mandarin would be her sixth language.
Also, Veronika herself had dropped a strange hint – what was the meaning of TheIneffableNorwegian and the Matrix-comment on Second Life?
Little things, but they were enough to be noted. So I called The Swedish Tax Agency and asked to talk to somebody at the national registration and learned that nobody called Veronika Larsson in Malmö was born in 1989, -90 or -91.
She said that she had attended the Cathedral School in Lund so I called them and her current school, the London School of Economics. Neither had had a Veronika Larsson as a student for the past ten years.
By now, I had a good overview of Veronika’s life history, a bunch of photos of her and her friends and could probably put together a rough list of her five favourite books and economists if I was asked to. I had read enough of her stylistically succinct and funny comments to admire her. And now I also knew with utmost certainty that she didn’t exist.
This made me even more curious. How long had she not existed? And who was behind Veronika?
I returned to the search engines, this time with more loose search words “Veronika”+”Malmö”. “Larsson”+”psychiatrist malmö”. “Veronika” + “Berkeley”.
I can’t remember which. But one of them resulted in a hit.
I grabbed the notebook and draw an affirmative line that marked a division towards my previous points. Below it I wrote a new name: “RICHARD COX”. The blog entry he had written, that I now had managed to find, confirmed that Veronika Larsson was a fake person – that had existed since 2007. For six years.
The writer Richard Cox met Veronika in 2007 on Myspace. She was a blonde from Malmö that had a catching smile with a contagiousness that is usually exclusive to yawns. He described her as “a bomb shell”. Har Myspace-profile included, he wrote, “hundreds of photos, heaps of friends including her boyfriend Shane and her cousin Elin (an ex-police officer in Malmö who had previously served in the army)” and quotes by Hemingway.
In the hunt for Veronika’s face I used Google’s picture search. You can upload a photo there and then the seach engine will find other places online where that photo appears. The only problem was that none of the almost 100 pictures that I already had gave any results. They appeared nowhere. There was also nothing in the pictures that gave a clue about where they were taken, no road signs, no company names or dates. One late summer day in the beginning of September I was about to loose hope.
My saving angel doesn’t want his name to appear in this text, so let us call him “Karl”.
One of the email addresses Richard Cox had for Veronika led to her Facebook page. It’s content was largely hidden and didn’t reveal much other that that she came from Lund and had around 30 friends. I asked around among a few of these, and nobody had talked to her, not even on the Facebook chat.
Half of the friends were Swedes, the other half Americans, seemingly chosen among people who had links to Berkeley, Skåne or some other place that Veronika claimed to have lived. The one who was closest to he geographically was “Karl”, who works in central Stockholm. I asked to meet him, and through his friendship with Veronika access what she had locked in her Facebook account.
He declined. I told him why. He suggested that we meet in a café the next day.
There were another 160 photos of “Veronika” on her Facebook-account. Most of them I had never seen before. When “Karl” had left I sat in the café and made picture searches for each and everyone of the photos, until the staff demonstratively cut out the lights.
It took me 40 pictures to find Tiffany Olson.
– Hi Jack, this is Tiffany.
– Oh, great, then I got the number right.
– Hehe, you're right, you did it!
The feeling of “you did it” is also in me when I for the first time hear Tiffany’s voice over the phone. It is young, somewhat raspy, and cheerful. It belongs to the face that I for a month have connected to the fictitious name Veronika Larsson. The person that for six years involuntarily and unconsciously has been the face of a person who only exists as an idea.
I contacted Tiffany in a message on Facebook, where I added a link and told her “the reason to why I want to talk to you is because I think someone has been stealing your photos off the internet for years, to fake a persona online”. It is the first and probably the last time I have written something like that to somebody.
“It is so bizarre, I don’t even know what to think about it. The first link you sent me was the personal webpage, and then I thought. “Oh God, there really is somebody who does this based on me”. I had no idea, she says on the phone.
Tiffany will soon be 25, and lives in Orange County, California.
“A normal girl who lives in America”, is how she describes herself. She has lots of pictures and friends on Facebook and in 2007 she had a similar Myspace-konto. Those were the days back then, she says. You published everything and added everybody. And that is how Tiffany, unknowingly, was part of Veronika Larsson’s birth.
“I don’t know if this has anything to do with your story, but.. There was a woman who added me on Myspace a long time ago. Her name was Stacey Anne Malloy.”
There is a very nice moment when you solve crosswords, when you find a very important word and the rest just rains down on your paper as a consequence.
That Tiffany has encountered Stacey Anne Malloy, the name that was the first to appear on Richard Cox’s Myspace-sida, this was such a moment.
This has definitely something to do with my story, I answered Tiffany.
“Oh my god. Oh my god.” She became one of my friends on Myspace in 2007, and she followed me when I switched to Facebook and added like all of my friends. But nobody had met her so people came up to me in school and asked me who she actually was. In the end, only five or six months ago, I erased her as my friend.
This is how I see the chain of events:
“Veronika Larsson” started with, as Stacey Anne Malloy, contacting Richard Cox. Then she discovered Tiffany Olson and decided for some reason that her appearance was better suited. Stacey Anne became friends with Tiffany to ensure a steady feed of fresh photos and Veronika was born in order to renew the contact with Richard. But despite the fact that they stopped exchanging emails the person behind Veronika doesn’t seem to think that her role had played out, and for several years kept advancing to a number of social media and web pages with her. One of these was The Guardians commentary field. And one sunny day in September I write this text.
Hereby I kill Veronika Larsson.
The biggest question still remains. Who is the person behind this? Who has put down an equivalent of a part time job in time for six years to run a fake person on the Internet, who manages to bluff their way into political discussions as well as respected newspapers and ordinary circles of friends?
Unfortunately that question will remain unanswered, at least in this text.
There were some leads. The email address that Richard got in a music file, the one that led to the Flickr-account and the IP-addresses he collected pointed to a woman who works in a school in Berkeley, California. But when I call that school and play the sound file on Veronika’s personal home page a confused receptionist tells me it is not the voice of that woman. She is certain. I don’t want to risk starting unfounded suspicion against her I don’t dare pursue that hunt. It ends there.
For Richard this story ended many years ago. But he dedicated his book “Thomas’ World” to Veronika, as thanks for the inspirational exchange of ideas she gave him. In the blog entry he writes, “She must have built a list casting friends and relatives and kept track of all the lies she told, in the same way as I do when I’m writing a book.”
“That blog entry I only wrote to promote “Thomas’ World”, and it is actually included as an appendix in the book. If she was still following my career I thought she would read it and get in touch, but it hasn’t happened. I guess she has moved on to other prey”, he says.
Well, prey... Veronika never seems to have been after money or other profit in her stunts. All she wanted was to tell her story, exact, cohesive and with lots of detail, over and over again, in many different places.
And she continues to do so. After a short break commenting at The Guardian-during August she is up and running again, with the same long and well written comments as usual. She is seen, just a she seems to aspire, but not for who she is. Why nobody knows, so far.
And for Tiffany the acquaintance with Veronika has just started. She is thinking about taking it further, maybe to the MTV-program Catfish that focuses on finding people who falsely claim they have other identities online. I say the story would be very big if it ended up on MTV and she may end up a public figure. Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?
“It would be better to be known for that than being know for somebody I’m not,” she says.
“And for no other reason, I would really like to know what I’m doing nowadays.”
The article in swedish: Vem är Veronika?
PICTURES: Veronika´s journey
Have you met Veronika?
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