This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It was a Saturday morning in June when 22-year-old Darcy’s relationship fell apart. At the request of her paranoid partner, she had taken a pregnancy test and left it on the bathroom counter so he could see with his own eyes that she was without child. When she later re-entered the room to take out the trash, she discovered her boyfriend "holding the test, uncapped, with the porous part in his mouth, making sucking sounds". Darcy stared in horror as her boyfriend yanked the stick from his mouth, creating an audible POP that reverberated off the bathroom tiles.
If you're familiar with this story, you’re likely also familiar with Reddit's r/relationships, a nearly 3 million member community where people seek advice for interpersonal issues. Darcy first posted her problem on the sub on Monday the 22nd of June, two days after she first witnessed her boyfriend – as she put it – "drinking the pee". That same day, her story was shared on @redditships, a Twitter account that screenshots noteworthy relationship-related Reddit posts for just under 400,000 followers. Darcy’s story had a small number of upvotes on Reddit, but took off on Twitter, with over 6,000 faves and 800 replies.
I [28F] have a problem with Darcy [22F]'s post: it is a lie. Darcy is 20, not 22, and she is a psychology student from Florida (her name has been changed). Darcy wrote the post at 1AM, making it up as she went along. “I used to write as a hobby, so I was honestly just having fun with it,” she explains. “I thought it was hilarious that so many people believed it, and I was a little proud of my writing, to be honest.”
There is no way of knowing how many popular posts on r/relationships are faked – Shal, one of the owners of the @redditships Twitter account, believes it’s only “a very small fraction”. Last year, a journalist from The Atlantic interviewed the moderators of r/relationships and discovered that the space is heavily controlled – moderators are more than happy to delete threads and ban users, and any post that is linked to elsewhere on the internet is removed (Darcy’s story was deleted, though mods told her it was because it belonged in r/sex, not because it seemed fake).
Yet despite the mods’ best efforts, faked posts remain a staple of the sub, as well as similar subs such as r/relationship_advice and r/AmITheAsshole (Shal estimates that between five and ten percent of popular r/relationship_advice posts are “suspect”). What motivates people to make up relationship drama, and why are so many of us willing to believe ridiculous stories?
There is no 29-year-old boyfriend who likes getting into fights with a cook at Waffle House. If you are one of the 40,000 people who favourited the most popular @redditships post ever, you’re likely feeling a little disappointed. “My (29F) Boyfriend (29M) keeps getting into fights with a cook at Waffle House” is a thrilling tale in which a woman wrestles with the fact that her partner likes to wrestle with a chain restaurant's chef. In desperation, the 29-year-old recounts how her boyfriend has been in “six or seven” physical fights with a cook who deliberately serves him the wrong order of eggs. “I’ve tried to talk to him about it a few times, but he keeps saying it’s a matter of principle,” the girlfriend writes. Later: “How do I get him to open up about this?”
Chris is 29, so at least one of part of his story is true. While looking after his son during quarantine, the lawyer from Kansas City decided to pass the time by writing a fake post for r/relationship_advice. Though he had attempted to troll the sub before, none of his past posts had taken off. As such, Chris deliberately crafted this story in a desktop document before uploading it, ensuring he created a believable backstory for the boyfriend. He even compares the twists in his tale to those in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“The quarantine was making me stir crazy, and I thought others might need a bit of a laugh as well,” Chris says of his motivations. Whether Chris qualifies as a “troll” is up for debate – while traditionally the term refers to those who are inflammatory online, the lawyer had more benevolent aims. “I just wanted to give everyone a chuckle.”
Some readers truly believed Chris' story, others just enjoyed the opportunity to be entertained. Chris says Reddit users are “much more sceptical” than people on Twitter, who he thinks are “very willing to take the story on its face”. Why do we believe ridiculous stories shared by anonymous strangers? The most-retweeted posts on @redditships feature (at best) clueless and (at worst) abusive boyfriends who variously have terrible business ideas, bully their partners, sleep in nests and have egregious age-gap relationships.
“People are more willing to accept that men do strange things,” says “CartoonsHateHer”, a completely anonymous cartoonist who has been creating troll posts for decades and has authored a book about her escapades_,_ The Troll Handbook: 100s of accounts, 100s of bans, 100 of posts, one bored girl. CartoonsHateHer says the “formula” for a perfect relationship troll post is a “clueless but well-meaning ‘normal’ person who has a spouse who is completely bonkers”, with posts becoming more popular if the bonkers partner is male. On Reddit, CartoonsHateHer has pretended to be a man who sent angry messages to a child because of Animal Crossing; a dad who catfished his own son; and a 46-year-old whose 21-year-old wife scammed him out of five luxury exercise bikes.
Steve, a 26-year-old movie theatre manager from New England, also uses the “bad boyfriend” formula for his troll posts. He has written posts as: a man who thought his girlfriend’s Bitmoji was too hot; a boyfriend who didn’t want to be in a “Disney couple”; and an asshole who insisted his girlfriend was in Slytherin (he documents his troll posts on his personal blog).
"I notice Twitter wants to speak about how men do have a tendency to be short-sighted and even mean or sometimes unappreciative,” Steve says. He says he often leaves hints via ridiculous lines that his posts aren’t real, but says "most people" still take his stories at face value. “I think people won’t question stuff that confirms their worldview,” Steve says, “Twitter is a lot more vocal about issues like toxic masculinity – I know that’s how it should be – but I think people on Twitter, if they see something tongue-in-cheek, might not read it as critically.”
Shal, the @redditships mod, says we are willing to believe faked posts because they are “reflections of reality”, and argues that even when a post is faked, “the account’s followers are sharing their feelings, interpretations and personal experiences, which are valid regardless of the truth of the post”. Katilya, another mod of the Twitter account, concurs: “The popular fake posts tend to riff on situations or tropes that one might encounter in real life… If we try to dig too far down into it, we run the risk of becoming those people who keep shouting ‘DIDN’T HAPPEN’ at every internet post that seems even vaguely out of the ordinary.” (It is also worth noting that there are plenty of real terrible boyfriends on Reddit – when I reached out to a user to ask if he faked a story about destroying one of his girlfriend’s precious possessions, he told me the post is regrettably real.)
In the end, relationship trolls say they mean no harm. Darcy, Steve and CartoonsHateHer say posting on Reddit is a way to hone their creative writing skills while also making people laugh.
“I’ve always been into writing and creating, but I think for most of my life I’ve assumed that only some types of writing 'count'," CartoonsHateHer says. She explains that imaginative Reddit posts allow her to be creative outside of the control of corporate parties, like publishers and TV execs. "It's important for me to be able to express myself without having to ask for approval," she says. "Trolling allows that free expression."