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BBC Sounds podcast Believe in Magic: a dark and strange story of online deception

A new series by Jamie Bartlett investigates a charity and its founders, and becomes a cautionary tale of social media fame.

Cast your mind back to 2012, that heady time in pop culture when The X Factor still ruled British music charts. At BBC Radio 1’s Teen Awards, its annual celebration of inspiring young people, One Direction are wearing purple wristbands sporting the words “Believe in Magic”. This is the name of a charity that granted wishes to ill children, founded that year by the 17-year-old Megan Bhari and her mother, Jean O’Brien – as Meg explains, it was sparked by her own experience of a rare condition which saw her undergo 24 operations. The charity grew at speed: the boy band supported it with enthusiasm, while David Cameron gave Bhari an award for “her incredible service”.

But Jean began posting on social media about her daughter’s own medical woes. She told followers Meg had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and began several rounds of crowdfunding to pay for complex treatment in the US, as well as a simultaneous trip to Disney World in Florida. The tumour, Jean wrote, had worsened – it had grown “tentacles” and was cutting off the blood supply to Meg’s brain. And “she now has 16 sources of infection… her blood is literally acidic”.

One onlooker, Joanne Ashcroft, was confused by this – a tumour with “tentacles”? And yet Meg could go to Disney World? Ashcroft had fundraised for her own ill son, and she and other members of the “cancer community” found the posts suspicious. She dug around for more information about Meg’s condition, dedicating hours a day to uncovering the truth.

This investigation from Jamie Bartlett, of the popular podcast series The Missing Cryptoqueen, zips along – he narrates facts and surreal details straightforwardly, in the present tense. It has that compulsive quality that often makes me queasy – what are the ethics of serving up a story as strange and dark as this one, with such a young person at its heart? But in its themes of social media fame, money and online deception it also serves as a deeply contemporary cautionary tale.

Believe in Magic
BBC Sounds

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[See also: Radio 4 offers BBC staff a chance to “get your head around the economy”]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?