Are Celebrity Psychics Using Facebook to Deceive Their Clients?

It’s a good time to be a psychic in America. According to a market analysis shared by The New York Times, there are roughly 95,000 psychic businesses in the U.S. These businesses earned about $2 billion in revenue last year. But the most profitable psychics, by far, are celebrity psychics.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | Robert Alexander/Getty Images
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Psychics have been around since before the mid-19th century but with the rise of social media in the past decade, the psychic game has changed significantly. Or so skeptics believe. Official psychic debunker Susan Gerbic has dedicated much of her time to exposing well-known psychics. Her current sting operation involves a team of trusted fellow debunkers who’ve been instructed to create fake Facebook profiles and show up at psychic events to see if the performers take the bait. If a debunker is singled out and the content from their Facebook page is utilized, they’ve caught a fraud.   

Celebrity psychic Thomas John  

Gerbic and her crew attempted their Facebook sting operation on celebrity psychic Thomas John, whose clientele includes Courteney Cox, Julianne Moore, and Sam Smith. He’s also the star of Seatbelt Psychic. But according to The Times, before John was a celebrity psychic, he was Thomas John Flanagan, a drag queen in Chicago who was charged with theft and fined and sentenced to probation.

The sting

Gerbic and one of her team members showed up to a recent show of John’s, in their faux Facebook personas. Gerbic’s profile mentioned losing her twin brother, Andrew, to pancreatic cancer. Sure enough, shortly into the show, John said he was tuning into a twin brother who wanted to communicate with his sister. “Somebody is making me aware of cancer?” The Times reports him saying. He took the bait and began an “emotional” dialogue with Gerbic, or rather Gerbic’s fictional Facebook persona. He knew everything her profile mentioned: her deceased brother’s name, the name of his girlfriend, where she grew up, and her father-in-law and how he passed away.  But then something changed.

“About two-thirds of the way through John’s riffing, he seemed to sense something was fishy. All of which is, in fact, part of the experiment. Gerbic knows only some of the facts of her character’s life. Her thinking is that if John knows even more details than she does, then it’s absolute proof that he’s looked through the Facebook posts. Gerbic’s sting is placebo-controlled, double-blind. On the tape, it’s easy to catch the precise moment when John sensed that something was wrong. John was talking about the dead brother when he suddenly asked, “And ‘Buddy,’ who is that?” Gerbic had no idea and improvised, “my father,” when in fact, Buddy was her fictional dead brother’s fictional dog,” reports The Times.

At that, he diverted his attention to another audience member.

A few days after the event, Gerbic received a tweet from John, but it wasn’t directed to her fictional persona, it was sent to her Susan Gerbic account. He sent her a heart. Gerbic believes it was a wink from John, letting her know he knew it was her and what she was up to.  

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