Gangstalking forums are hurting people even as some on them try to help
HUMANS AND TECHNOLOGY
“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Forums where people discuss being “gangstalked” are messy and confusing—and they lead some down a dark path.By Amelia TaitAugust 7, 2020Advertisementnull
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate and the elaborate plays she would write and perform with her siblings. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. Over the next several years, she moved across the country sporadically and spontaneously—she began bouncing from Florida, where Danny lives, to Baltimore to see her grandmother, to Virginia, to Washington, DC, sometimes living in her car. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
For the next five or six years, Jenny led a remarkable and productive life. She worked for the National Association of Mental Illness, was on the board for the National Organisation for Women, volunteered regularly, tutored college kids, and wrote a book. Her friend Lauren describes her as “a beautiful, smart, funny person who deserved a much easier life than the one she had.”CHRISSIE ABBOTT
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. Looking in his sister’s purse after her death, Danny discovered that she had purchased a ticket to Chicago but never boarded the plane. In the years prior to her death, Jenny’s mental health had deteriorated and her delusions had returned—she had begun threatening Danny and his young son, leading him to take out a restraining order against his sister. The judge who granted the order told Jenny she had to get a psychological evaluation within a year. She was dead within two months.
After her death, Jenny’s family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker, who runs his own small technology business—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer.
Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.
The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.
Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers. (Editor’s note: we have decided not to link to any of the gangstalking-related posts or forums mentioned in this article.)
As he combed through Jenny’s computer, Danny found his sister subscribed under a series of aliases to what he describes as hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. His discovery sparked memories from the months before Jenny’s death, when she had first mentioned the term “gangstalking.” He had registered it as nonsense at the time. Her illness sometimes manifested as elaborate fictions where Jenny was the victim of some shadowy conspiracy—though she had once attempted to join the Church of Scientology, she also believed the organization was monitoring her and using technology of some sort to torture her in her apartment. She thought her family were gangstalkers and she was going to be forced to become a “breeder.”
“It blew my mind to see there was a giant group of people basically reinforcing this,” Danny says of finding the online groups. “Something like that was probably the worst thing she could have seen. If this was 20 or 30 years ago, there wasn’t the internet. If you went up to somebody and said ‘People are gangstalking me,’ they would think you were crazy. But if you’re on the internet, alone in your apartment, you can get a reply of ‘Oh yeah, me too’.”
Let’s be clear: The internet didn’t kill Jenny—suicide has many, often mysterious causes, and those suffering from psychosis are at particular risk. But Danny believes it played a role. According to Danny, Jenny sometimes struggled with her medication. She built up tolerance to her antipsychotics, he says, and her mental health would often deteriorate when she switched medication.
There is plenty of evidence that the online forums Jenny frequented and digital circles she ran in can be damaging. In a Reddit post from two years ago, a user explains how he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and initially attempted to resist the diagnosis due to his belief in gangstalking. He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.” Across the subreddit, many posters encourage a distrust of medical professionals and discourage the use of antipsychotics—“They will make your situation infinitely more worse,” reads a post from the beginning of the year. Some claim that gangstalkers are trying to drive their victims mad in order to delegitimize them.
He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.”
Harry is a 23-year-old from Texas who began experiencing delusions when he started college (his name has been changed to retain his anonymity). After witnessing a rape at a fraternity, he began losing sleep; his situation was exacerbated by a breakup and school-related stress. Harry came to believe he was being stalked, filmed, and whispered about—on multiple occasions, he screamed at strangers to stop following him. Eventually, he was institutionalized for a month and diagnosed as bipolar.
Online spaces didn’t exacerbate Harry’s delusions—he only found a gangstalking subreddit after he had been treated. Still, the forum made him angry. “If anyone had acted like they believed me or gone along with my delusions, that probably would’ve added another month to breaking out of it,” he says now. “It’s hard enough to break out of it when nobody believes you … but if you have a community of people that are willing to agree with you that the entire world’s against you, it’s bad, bad trouble.”
Harry decided to post on the subreddit to show people “a way out” of their way of thinking. Commenters labelled his diagnosis “irrelevant” and a correlation between mental illness and a belief in gangstalking was immediately dismissed.
While working as a psychiatrist in a New York City hospital just over 15 years ago, Joel Gold encountered five separate people who believed they were the star of their own reality TV program that was broadcast around the world. Everybody else, Gold’s patients believed, were actors employed in the farce. If these beliefs sound familiar, that’s because they borrow heavily from the plot of 1998’s The Truman Show, a dark comedy about a man watched by the world since birth. Gold christened their beliefs “the Truman Show delusion.”In 1998, The Truman Show offered a mind-bending take on the idea that we’re each the star of our own movie.EVERETT COLLECTION
In 2014, Gold—now a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine—co-authored a book with his brother, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. In it they argue that delusions are shaped by society, and that the world around us influences the form psychosis takes. “As technology has evolved, people with delusions have absorbed the technology of the day,” Gold says. He argues that it’s natural that people feel they’re under surveillance—thanks to social media and the rise of CCTV cameras, we often are. “So it’s a double hit, if you will,” he says. “There’s an underlying delusion that many people might have come to anyway, and then there are the seeds of reality that people use to build their delusion upon.”
Many who share stories of gangstalking online write of televisions that talk back, hacked computers, microwave weapons, and “voice to skull” technology that allows a harasser to transmit messages directly into the mind of the harassed. Gold says many of his patients with the Truman Show delusion only came to believe they were a TV star after they had watched the movie, with many of them explicitly referencing the film as a moment of enlightenment. It’s possible that some people stumble upon gangstalking sites and these sites influence the form their delusions take.
Gold notes it is obviously “not necessary to be on these chat rooms” in order to develop gangstalking delusions, but from a treatment perspective, he says gangstalking sites “complicate matters.” “If I was seeing someone who believed they were being gangstalked and I gingerly explained why I thought they were suffering from mental illness, they could very simply and confidently point to these chat sites and say, ‘Are we all crazy?’ It becomes much more challenging.”
Then again, he says, these sites could have benefits for some people who believe in gangstalking—it could be soothing for an individual to learn they are not alone. There’s evidence that this happens, or at least that some people are trying to connect in a positive way through these forums. Many posters who do not believe in gangstalking come to offer help to those who believe they’re being stalked, including by sometimes challenging those beliefs. In the Reddit post where the user described antipsychotics stopping his delusions, there were also supportive comments alongside the negative ones. “Congrats! You are speaking very clearly now with such a positive view,” read the most-upvoted comment, in which a user asked questions about medication.
Harry, the young man who tried to offer a voice of dissent on a gangstalking subreddit, says that despite receiving negative comments, a handful of people messaged him privately for help. “A lot of time the people that were posting there had no one to help them, no one to talk to,” Harry says. “Even though there are resources out there, they need help to figure out what those resources are. I thought I could use my experience as a way to help.”
For many experiencing mental illness, the internet can be a lifeline—a resource that allows people to talk freely in a world that still heavily stigmatizes their suffering. Therapy remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many in the US—the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years, while 60% of US counties do not have a practicing psychiatrist. “I would just really like to talk—about anything,” wrote one user on a gangstalking subreddit in May, asking users to chat with him about Netflix, the weather, and birds. A couple of users offered to strike up friendship, and it seems the original poster achieved his desire to find, “people who understand you, believe you, just know what it’s like.” In a Facebook group for people who believe themselves to be victims of gangstalking, which has nearly 8,000 members, users discourage suicide, pray for one another, and encourage each other to “stay strong.”Aaron Alexis scrawled “Not what y’all say!” into the shotgun he used to kill 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013.FBI
Others argue that any benefits that may come from such sites are outweighed by the real-world harm that could result from stoking belief in gangstalking. Robert Bartholomew is a sociologist and author of A Colorful History of Popular Delusions (in this context, “delusions” refers to social delusions—false beliefs and panics shared by a society, such as the Salem Witch Trials, or the Red Scare—not psychotic delusions).
A few years ago, he joined the mailing list of a man who believed he was a targeted individual. The man’s newsletter went out to over 800 people, and he became increasingly erratic over time. In May 2019, he sent an email using threatening language before claiming he could “could easily break Alexis’ record.” Aaron Alexis was a 34-year-old US Navy contractor who shot and killed twelve people in the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. He left behind a note on his computer in which he claimed he was being controlled by low frequency electromagnetic waves. When Bartholomew received the newsletter from the man who threatened to imitate Alexis, he (and others) contacted the man’s local police department—he is now in prison.
In a separate instance in 2014, a lawyer in New Mexico filmed a video about his experiences being gangstalked by the government before shooting and injuring three people.
Some on gangstalking forums encourage one another to act on their delusions. In one Reddit post, a user shares tips on how to “fuck with” stalkers (who they call “perps”): cut them off in traffic, bump into them, provoke them to anger. In another, someone threatens to shoot at drones. Bartholomew believes online gangstalking spaces are a “public health issue” but also says, “the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back.”
There is another genie that has emerged from its bottle over the last decade, one that touches almost everyone who uses the internet: the dangerous impact of online misinformation. According to a March survey by Pew Research Center, 48% of American adults reported seeing made-up news about the Covid-19 virus. In light of the pandemic, social networks have increased their efforts to tackle false news, with Twitter now labelling misinformation and Facebook directing its users to the World Health Organisation’s website.
How can someone distinguish delusions from conspiracies fed by misinformation? In the UK, dozens of phone masts were burned or vandalized in April after misinformation spread on social media that 5G damages people’s health, with some blaming the technology for the coronavirus. Celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and boxer Amir Khan have spread the conspiracy, while broadband engineers have been attacked and threatened. In a Facebook group for people who believe they are the targets of gangstalking, an April post read, “Burn all 5g towers down,” to which commenters added, “NO! Burn those who created them!” and “Destroy them or they will destroy us.”AP PHOTO / MATT DUNHAM
There is a murky overlap between these two worlds, but Bartholomew argues—as the 2015 research paper demonstrated—that most gangstalking beliefs are based on clinically delusional tendencies. “Your run of the mill conspiracy theory believer is not psychotic,” he says. Not everyone who frequents gangstalking forums is clinically paranoid or experiencing persecutory delusions, of course, just as everyone who visits 5G conspiracy forums cannot be declared free of psychosis. Yet both phenomena highlight how the internet can legitimize and spread fringe beliefs.
While Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others have taken steps to combat many sources of misinformation and dangerous content online—Reddit banned the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald in late June for violating several of the site’s policies—activity and discussion around gangstalking continues to fly beneath the radar. If you Google “5G coronavirus,” for example, the first result is a promoted link from WHO “busting myths,” and the first page of results is full of words like “conspiracy theory” and “false.” Searches for “gangstalking” also include news articles questioning the veracity of the phenomenon—but at the time of writing, a worrisome Facebook post from 2013 is still among the top ten results. The 3,000-word screed claims that gangstalking is real, arguing, “If we don’t want to be overpowered, we need to take appropriate measure as soon as possible.”
Danny is legally not allowed access to Jenny’s medical records and therefore doesn’t know if she stopped taking her medication, or a medication change prompted her death. But he believes gangstalking forums played at least some part in his sister’s decline. “From the amount she was reading and subscribed to, it was taking up a really large space in her life,” he says. He estimates that she logged on to at least one gangstalking forum every day.
Danny reported the gangstalking groups he found on Jenny’s computer to Facebook and Reddit, but he never received any response. He remains “pissed off” by the fact these spaces are permitted, and firmly believes they are dangerous. The subreddit’s own sidebar rules say giving specific medical advice is banned. Reddit itself bans subreddits that explicitly encourage or incite violence, but gangstalking subs do not violate any of its current policies. A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We always want people to feel welcome and safe on our platforms which is why we have a set of community standards which set out the limits for acceptable behaviour and content. We will take action against any content which violates our policies, and encourage people to use our reporting tools for any posts they are concerned about.”
Jenny was six years older than her little brother Danny, which means she often babysat him when she was a teen. With fondness, he recalls that she invented a “Sunny Day School” to occupy her younger siblings in the summer holidays—there were lesson plans, costumes, badges, classes, even an anthem. When Danny became a teenager himself and life got tougher, Jenny would drive him to the bookstore or to a movie or to Taco Bell—“literally just driving, the longer the better.” Sometimes, the siblings simply sat in a parking lot and spoke for hours at a time. “She had all of that big sister wisdom,” Danny says. “That’s what I use the most from her now.”
When asked what he thinks about the fact that people like his sister can still participate in gangstalking forums today, he doesn’t mince words. “I think about my sister in her more lucid moments, when she was medicated, when she volunteered to help people who were mentally ill—if she saw what I saw, she would be on the internet every day trying to shut it down .”MIT Technology Review © 2020