Shedding Light on a Dark Side of Online Community
Today, The New York Times has a look at mind control websites and online communities that reinforce the delusional beliefs of its members:
Identified by some psychologists and psychiatrists as part of an “extreme community” on the Internet that appears to encourage delusional thinking, a growing number of such Web sites are filled with stories from people who say they are victims of mind control and stalking by gangs of government agents. The sites are drawing the concern of mental health professionals and the interest of researchers in psychology and psychiatry.
Well, yes, of course. The Internet is a large place, so The New York Times could write a new article every week on the bizarre and strange communities that exist on topics you didn’t even know existed. Some are odd, some are likely potentially harmful, but the vast majority are harmless or greatly beneficial to their users. But that’s not as interesting as finding groups of people who suffer from delusions of persecution and that people are “out to get them” who gain support from sharing the supposed truth of their delusional beliefs with one another:
Mental health experts who have closely looked at the Web sites are careful to say that there is no way to prove if someone posting on, say, Mr. Robinson’s site, […] is suffering from mental illness.
Gosh, I don’t know. Persecution delusions that span decades and involve “mind control,” being “sexually stimulated” remotely, or have been abducted by aliens and singled out for probing sound a lot like a form of mental illness to me. And while nobody can offer an accurate diagnosis online, these are common symptoms of schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder.
And of course, the article subtly reinforces the ridiculous possibility that all of this could really exist:
Recently the sites have linked to an article published in September in Time magazine, “The Army’s Totally Serious Mind-Control Project,” which described a $4 million contract given to the Army to develop “thought helmets” that would allow troops to communicate through brain waves on the battlefield.
This sort of snippet provides pretty strong evidence that if the government already had mind-control technology that could affect people from distances of hundreds or thousands of miles, they wouldn’t have allowed a new article to be published in TIME discussing a very weak form of that technology. Why would the Army be only now developing communication technology for their soldiers if they could control people’s minds already? (I’d think controlling people’s minds and behaviors is much harder than simply sending them a message!) Technology, by the way, that hasn’t even been proven to work.
Vaughn Bell, a psychologist, is quoted in the article, as he actually has done some research in this area:
Dr. Bell and some other mental health professionals say that even if the users of such sites are psychotic, forging an online connection to others and being told — perhaps for the first time — “you are not crazy” could actually have a positive effect on their illnesses.
“We know, for example, that things like social support, all of these positive social aspects are very good for people’s mental illness,” Dr. Bell said. “I wouldn’t say it’s entirely and completely positive, but it can be positive.”
Which is a good point, but without research, you can’t really say these communities are causing harm or helping people. If these types of communities simply reinforce one another’s delusions and delusional behavior, then it could be potentially harmful. In terms of finding acceptance and possible social support in these communities, it can be potentially helpful. (He also separately argues a technicality of the definition of schizophrenia about cultural sensitivity that I believe is incorrect and misses the broader point that delusions have to be primarily false or erroneous; a subgroup is not typically recognized as a “culture.” To argue this line, anyone diagnosed with any mental disorder could legitimately be considered their own “culture.”)
These communities differ from traditional mental health self-help support communities, like the ones we offer here at Psych Central support forums, in that our emphasis is on helping people gain support and information to get better. The communities described in the NY Times article seem focused instead on not only validating, but actually reinforcing, the delusions and delusional behavior.
It’s an interesting article, but not one that is skeptical enough about these niche communities.
By the way, I don’t think the author of the article is presenting a fair and balanced picture of the extent of this phenomenon and whether it really is of much relevance (outside of a passing curiosity). Here’s an example of the scare-mongering done in this article:
The site lists more than 71,000 visitors, and it has links to several other sites, including Harrassment101.com, which has 965 posts.
Yes, the homepage has a counter. Each time you reload the page, it increments by one. That could be 100 visitors visiting the homepage 700 times each, or 70,000 people visiting it just once. But you don’t know, because it’s a page counter, not a visitor counter. But it sure sounds scarier noting a big number of “visitors” than the less impressive number of “965 posts” (which any pet hamster, satanist, or fishing website could receive in a month).
Grohol, J. (2018). Shedding Light on a Dark Side of Online Community. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/shedding-light-on-a-dark-side-of-online-community/