Is the Internet a Haven or Hell for Mental Health?

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There is no debate that internet and social media use is sky-high, but is it really ruining our mental health?

Today, youth suicide rates in America are at their highest ever recorded and and 40 million Americans regularly take psychiatric drugs; today America is unquestionably in the midst of a mental health crisis. One overwhelmingly popular theory to explain this crisis places the blame squarely on the rise of the internet. Social and digital media, many argue, distances us from one another, pressures us to live up to impossible standards, and even rewires our brain to seek instant validation the same way that a drug would. The truth, however, is far less simple. As technology use becomes increasingly ubiquitous and social media becomes many American’s primary interface with the world, the most destructive aspects of humanity have been pulled from the shadows and put on display—but so have our most constructive tendencies. The internet of today is abounding with communities of mutual support and nurturance that give those struggling with mental illness a safe forum to give and receive aid, illustrating that the internet is a platform that defies black and white analysis.

 

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Teen suicide rates continue to increase; many blame the internet for the rise

The effects of internet usage on mental health is by far the hottest topic in the world of psychological research today. Unending studies after studies have tried to prove a causal link between the two, but the process is ultimately extremely difficult—if test subjects are already heavy internet users, they may experience “withdrawal” when separated from their primary source of contact with the outside world, even if the content that they viewed on those platforms negatively contributed to their well-being. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to control for how users will choose to spend their time on social media, or perhaps, how the social media algorithms will choose for them. A feed full of cute puppies and uplifting stories would never produce the same effect as a feed full of depressing news. As a result, researcher’s findings are all over the place.

One study, performed over 5,270 days, with a test group of 388 adolescents, found that there was no correlation between time spent online and subjectively worse mental health. Surprisingly, the same study found that even individuals that already had mental health problems at baseline exhibited no signs of increased symptoms during days when technology use was higher.

Another study from a similarly reputable cohort, though with a much larger study group of 6,595 members, found the precise opposite—that more than 3 hours per day of social media usage puts adolescents at significantly higher risk, and that even 30 minutes online lead to greater “internalizing behavior” including depression and anxiety.

Another Harvard-affiliated study also contradicts the claim that more time online equates to greater mental health issues, but highlights the prevalence of experimental design issues. The study used a test group of only 126 adolescents and relied completely on loose self-reporting. Regardless, the study actually made an very bold assertion: that time spent on a “favorite website” correlated to lower overall anxiety, especially for individuals with existing anxiety.

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Internet Addiction is a diagnosable condition in China, where teens are sent to military-inspired boot camps for “treatment”

Another popular framework is that of Internet Addiction (IA), the idea that the Internet as we know it functions like a drug, offering dopamine rushes often in the form of likes and attention, and leading to negative real-world consequences like withdraws. Evidence shows that internet gaming is particularly problematic, as “affected brain regions responsible for reward, impulse control and sensory-motor coordination. Brain activation studies have shown that videogame playing involved changes in reward and loss of control and that gaming pictures have activated regions similarly to those activated by cue-exposure to drugs.”

How, then, does one reconcile these differences? One likely answer could lie in how users interact with the internet. Do they seek out content that calms and uplifts them? Or conversely, do they regularly expose themselves to content that worries them, disturbs them, or makes them feel inadequate? If we conceptualize online spaces as we conceptualize real-world ones, it becomes glaringly obvious that where you spend time online might matter more than how long you spend online.

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A YouTuber discusses her experiences with Bipolar Disorder, the top comment reads: “I’m crying tears of relief right now. I’ve never had anyone describe the way I feel so accurately and so in depth. Listening to you share your experience makes me feel like someone understands me, and I just really needed that right now. Thank you ❤”

Perhaps the best place to look for potential psychological benefits of online networking is among those already suffering from mental illness. One groundbreaking paper from 2014 posed the question: how do severely mentally ill individuals use the internet? They found that the internet offered an unstructured web of peer support, which “includes a system of mutual giving and receiving where individuals with severe mental illness can offer hope, companionship, and encouragement to others facing similar challenges.” They performed an ethnographic analysis of YouTubers who chronicled their struggles with severe mental illness online, noting that these individuals attracted followings that shared their experiences, and offered help to each other in the comments sections below videos. This process happened “naturally among individuals with highly stigmatized psychiatric illnesses within an unmonitored and public online platform.”

Those with existing mental health issues are using the internet to seek and give support, this much is certain. What remains unaccounted for is whether or not the support genuinely helps or hinders the healing process for those with existing mental health issues. One Cambridge study suggests that is does; “People with serious mental illness,” the study asserts, “report benefits from interacting with peers online from greater social connectedness, feelings of group belonging and by sharing personal stories and strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges of living with a mental illness. Within online communities, individuals with serious mental illness could challenge stigma through personal empowerment and providing hope. By learning from peers online, these individuals may gain insight about important health care decisions, which could promote mental health care seeking behaviours.”

The potential to avoid and combat stigma remains one of the largest benefits of peer-to-peer support online. Whereas, in the real world, individuals with existing mental illnesses are often forced to suffer in secret for fear of judgement (or worse) from friends, family, and colleagues, online spaces offer liberatingly open and honest forums for discussion. Just talking to others, being recognized, and having one’s experience validated can greatly reduce the feelings of isolation and “defectiveness” associated with mental illness. However, the question remains: what happens next?

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An hour-long CBT session, offered for free by trained mental health professionals on YouTube

The best-case scenario is that individuals give and receive validation that helps them come to terms with their illness, learn what has worked for others, and develop healthy coping strategies in the process. Spaces like this do exist, especially on YouTube (as mentioned previously), where many genuine psychotherapists produce content and use YouTube as a “front-end” to their businesses. Ideally, these individuals will also be guided towards proven therapy methods that can be completed online, drawing from the internet’s vast free resources of knowledge, or in-person for a more individualized, tailored approach.

The problem is, lots of people do not go that route. Many online spaces for mentally ill people do not live up to these lofty expectations, and many others are just plain toxic. Unmonitored group therapy—a group discussion among those suffering from mental illness that is not supervised by a professional social worker or therapist—is seen as a negligent and often dangerous practice by mental health professionals and the digital version of it should be considered equally fraught. This issue is especially prevalent in online communities that are comprised mostly of teenagers and thus lack the voices and perspectives of those who have successfully sought treatment and “come out the other side”.

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A yellow gold necklace with a “depression” pennant; the same company sells one with “anxiety” as well, illustrating the marketing potential of mental illness

The result is everything from unhealthy to catastrophic. On one hand we have sad online culture—borne of Tumblr angst, melancholic photography, poetry, and art—depression-centric media come to dominate internet culture, birthing the hashtags #sadgirl and #sadboy, the entire careers of artists from XXXTENTACION to Lana Del Rey, funding a new wave of clothing and accessory makers angling to monetize mental illness, and giving disorders like depression a decided coolness and cultural cachet that leads young people to indulge their worst impulses rather than seek help.

An even more dangerous result is that of a positive feedback loop, whereby group members fuel each other’s mental illness by validating, and encouraging the same patterns of thought that the illness creates. When no outside perspective is taken into consideration, communities of peer support can become communities of mutually assured destruction.

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A Pro-Ana bracelet, used to signify membership to an online community that encourages eating disorders

 

Examples of just this situation are unfortunately numerous; perhaps the most egregious example of a destructive feedback loop is the Pro-Ana community, short for Pro-Anorexia. Pro-Ana groups have sprung up across many social media sites including Tumblr, Facebook, Xanga, Myspace. The contents of these communities are deeply disturbing—members post photos and receive public fat shaming, offer advice on how to induce vomiting, fast together in solidarity, and post thinspiration or “thinspo” images of emaciated models and celebrities to motivate further starvation.

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This image, posted on 4chan in 2018, started an entire “doomer” subculture

Another, more male-centric subculture is that of the “doomer,” borne out of 4chan, the doomer is a character meant to represent a 20 to 30-year-old male who has seemingly exhausted the potential in his life. He works in a job that he actively despises, is often addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, and opioids, and wades through a profoundly isolated world. Communities of doomers exist across the internet, where they collectively despair about the state of society, their loneliness, and the meaninglessness of modern life, sometimes blaming women and minorities for their woes in an act called “blackpilling”. They often share playlists of music that are meant to complement or evoke these emotions, which often contains explicit references to suicide.

The question of how the Internet is shaping the mental health of America is clearly not a simple one. Its complexity lies in the infinite depth and breath of the internet—a multitude of communities and experiences that defy singular definition. These many examples prove why we must view the internet as a tool and a platform not one monolithic whole. Internet users can travel down both profoundly uplifting and profoundly destructive paths, but through effective moderation and increased awareness of toxic behavior online, we can funnel people towards an internet that changes people’s lives for the better.

Trump and Fox: A Lover’s Quarrel

Over the course of Trump’s career, Fox News has served as a de-facto state media organization. From softball interviews, to around-the-clock glowing coverage, to apparently serving as Trump’s primary source of information—sometimes even directly addressing him—Tump’s relationship with Fox News has been nothing less than symbiotic. As Trump stokes the flames of mistrust within his supporters, he channels more and more traffic to Fox, generating more and more profit for the cooperation.

Recently, however, Trump has begun to attack his favorite network for perceived slights—in other words, having any remaining journalistic integrity. Trump’s first salvo occurred on August 28th when he tweeted “…I don’t want to Win for myself, I only want to Win for the people. The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” Though he proceeded to write 14 positive tweets promoting Fox programming on the same day, the damage had been done.

Some Fox anchors bristled at the news; “Mr. President, we don’t work for you. I don’t work for you,” said Fox News host Neil Cavuto. “My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you. Just report on you.” Others, like Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom spoke at Trump rallies in 2018, remained silent.

Trump is now pushing One America News Network, an even more pro-Trump network that offers essentially no differing perspectives. It is a disturbing, decidedly anti-democratic and anti-free-speech move towards the creation of pure propaganda network for the Republican party. The president, and politicians in general, should do more to support good-faith journalism if they value democracy in the slightest.

Source: https://www.vox.com/2019/9/3/20836724/why-trump-is-attacking-fox-news-explained

Bernie’s Plan for the Media

Are you increasingly worried by massive media monopolies? Luckily for you, so is Bernie Sanders. On Monday, Sanders released a comprehensive plan to combat years of careless deregulation brought about by tech corporations’ increased influence over politics. From Viacom to Verizon, Disney, and Google, massive mergers have allowed just a few companies to control nearly everything we see, and they care little about the spread of misinformation on their platforms. According to Bernie, “we should not want even more of the free press to be put under the control of a handful of corporations and ‘benevolent’ billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.”
His plan includes employee stock ownership plans that would prevent massive layoffs that have been a hallmark of recent mergers, and promises to reverse Trump-era Federal Communications Commission rules that allowed “cross-ownership of television, radio stations, and newspapers as well as one group to control multiple stations in one market.”
As someone who grew up with the horrors of Comcast, this is a welcome sight that will hopefully bring greater competition to the market of ISPs, social media, and content production. ISPs’ business model has long been to aggressively undercut smaller providers only to then buy them out and jack up prices. As covered in Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant show Patriot Act, a deal between Comcast and its largest rival, Charter, was struck during “The Summer of Love” in which each company agreed not to offer overlapping service. As a result, no client could change providers, and each company was free to increase rates and decrease the quality of service.
I personally applaud Bernie’s plan, but I hope that, in the future, we begin to view internet and media as a utility no different than water and electricity and prevent corporations from exercising so much control over something so central to modern life.

Link to article: (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/458902-sanders-releases-media-plan-press-shouldnt-be-controlled-by-corporations)

Annotated Bibliography

Hawley, George. Making Sense Of The Alt-Right. Columbia University Press, 2019.

This book by Columbia University political scientist George Hawley sheds light on the newest iteration of far-right extremism in the U.S. – the alt-right. Young and tech-savvy, members of the alt-right exist primarily in a digital space. The movement began, gained traction, and flourished predominantly online, and served an important roll in Trump’s election by stoking the flames of racist and xenophobic hatred online. The book approaches the alt-right from a myriad of angles; first situating the alt-right as a movement distinct from traditional conservatism, white nationalism, and libertarianism; and later describing the online affordances that allowed the alt-right to grow exponentially, namely anonymity and minimal online moderation. This text will help me contextualize, characterize, and categorize modern far-right discourse online.

Herman, Lise Esther., and James Muldoon. Trumping the Mainstream: the Conquest of Democratic Politics by the Populist Radical Right. Routledge, 2019.

This book’s first chapter, “the mainstreaming of far-right extremism online and how to counter it,” will prove very useful in understanding the proliferation of fringe groups online, such as the once tiny but now massive “redpill” and “incel” communities. This book details the process by which these fringe groups recruited countless new members through mainstream social media sites like 4chan and Reddit. This book also provides indispensable tools and strategies for combatting far-right proliferation online, namely by deplatforming White nationalists. Without prescriptions for change, my research paper would be rather bleak and imply that we have no agency to change the current state of affairs online.

Keen, Ellie, and Mara Georgescu. Bookmarks – A Manual for Combating Hate Speech Online through Human Rights Education. Edited by Rui Gomes, Council of Europe, 2014.

This document, compiled by the Eurpean Union’s Council of Europe as part of the “No Hate Speech Movement,” provides an essential counterexample to U.S. conceptions of “protected” speech. In the E.U., the link between hate speech and terrorism is legally codified, as “words of hate can lead to real-life crimes of hate, and such crimes have already ruined and taken the lives of too many people”. This guide is made in part by and certainly for European youth who are concerned with the rapid spread of racism and xenophobia in response to the migrant crisis. The guidebook gives examples of activities that could be performed in a classroom to teach students how to have civil debates online, and how to spot bigotry. One module describes a wave of attacks on Muslims in the made-up town “Sleepyville,” spurred by anti-Muslim groups online in response to the construction of a new mosque. By using extremely relevant scenarios, the guide hopes to teach students how to properly respond to bigotry online. I plan to use this to provide practical examples of anti-hate speech education.

Klein, Adam. Fanaticism, Racism, and Rage Online Corrupting the Digital Sphere. Springer International Publishing, 2018.

This book holistically examines the culture of hate online, describing everything from fringe forums to popular mainstream outlets of bigotry that intermingle with popular culture on widely-used platforms. It provides a unique perspective on both aspects of extremism, detailing the links between hate on the surface web and the deep web. It shows how the democratization of internet access lead to a global resurgence in hate groups, and points to educational initiatives and organizations that are on the front lines of the fight against online radicalism. This book will serve as a fantastic general resource that looks more broadly at the history of hate movements online and offers varied advice regarding the hindering of these movements.

Koppel, Ted, Don Black, and Floyd Abrams. Hate and the Internet. Princeton, NJ: Films for the

Humanities, 1999.

 

This dateline ABC segment from 1999 features Don Black, the creator of Stormfront, the prominent online destination for White nationalists around the world. It also features a first amendment attorney who had worked for clients like The New York Times and ABC News. The two guests talk with ABC’s Ted Koppel about freedom of speech online and the impossibility of limiting hate speech under current law. The dateline episode is notable because, in the current political climate, mere references to White nationalism are often seen as politically charged, and current mainstream networks typically avoid the subject altogether. This resource will be central to the discussion of hate communities in the early internet, as well the analysis of unchanging hate speech laws in the United States.

Simpson, Patricia Anne, and Helga Druxes. Digital Media Strategies of the Far Right in Europe and the United States. Lexington Books, 2015.

This book answers the important question, “how”? How did fringe extremist groups in the 90’s become central to American and European discourse online? How did these groups attract so many new members so quickly? How do they radicalize these members and establish such fervent communities? The book attempts to answer many of these questions by looking at the kinds of media shared within far-right spaces online, including music, manifestos, and violent diatribes against immigrants and LBGT people. With this book, I will be able to look into the tactics of the far right, gaining a better understanding of their community-building tactics, and becoming more aware of the points of entry into the far-right sphere online, which will hopefully point to potential areas of reform

Wojcieszak, Magdalena. “Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights.” Sociological Inquiry, vol. 80, no. 1, 2010, pp. 150–152. JSTOR, doi:10.1111/j.1475-682x.2009.00320.x.

This book offers a completely different take on racism online by using a handful of teenagers as a test group and exposing them to “cloaked” racist sights online – websites designed to appear as civil rights publications on the surface but become increasingly racist as the reader descends into them. It attempts to debunk the idea that the internet is a recruiting tool for racists, instead suggesting that, if teenagers can’t make sense of racist dogwhistling, they will not enter these spaces online. I see this as a rather reductive analysis and hope to offer a counter example by analyzing how teens become accustomed to White supremacist ideas and symbols over time through constant exposure.

 

Internet–Bred Terror and How to Fight It

Above: A Poster by Atlanta Antifacists Outs Justin Peek, a Local White Power Organizer

On Friday, a White nationalist terrorist killed 50 Muslims during their religious services. He wore a camera and live-streamed his massacre first-person-shooter-style, constantly referencing memes and internet culture. He was emboldened by the same online culture that spawned Dylann Roof, who killed nine in a church in South Carolina, Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six in a church in Quebec, Robert Gregory Bowers, who killed 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and Jeremy Joseph Christian, who stabbed and killed two on a train in Portland, Oregon, among many others. All of them had public presences on sites like Stormfront.org and Gab.com, where they could openly and freely interact with other extremists. Even platforms like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter now teem with White supremacists and nationalists, though much of their hate on these platforms is disguised as humor. It should be abundantly clear by now that these online communities breed terrorism and should be shut down the same way that ISIS websites were, but that process has yet to begin. This is largely because racially-motivated violence by Whites (in the U.S. particularly) is sanctioned by the state – as is evidenced by nearly routine murders of unarmed Black men by police officers and Trump’s absolute insistence on not using the term “White Nationalist Terrorism,” instead referring to these terrorists as “crazy people,” implying that they were not part of any larger movement. The flourishing of White nationalists online, untamed by any government censorship, calls for a new approach to antifascist organizing. From DDoS attacks to doxxing, the new digital resistance will rely on deplatforming and exposing White Nationalists who are often hiding right in front of our eyes.

Extra Credit #1

Last Tuesday, I attended Dr. Connor’s talk on Snowpiercer, which I found both very interesting and quite inaccessible. He described how Snowpiercer was a kind of self-referential metaphor – a movie about itself. The compartmentalization of the train mirrored the creation of the film itself, which was an amalgamation of French writing, Korean special effects, New Zealand sound engineering, and Czech production. This new system is a byproduct of a digital age where scripts, video, and sound can be sent across the world to the most talented, efficient, or cost-effective creator. This system also privileges the “auteur,” who can cherry-pick diverse artists who share their vision. While the old studio system was very linear and highly centralized, the new system is very decentralized, but led by a single visionary auteur. I loved the section of the talk that detailed the translation of a French book into a bootlegged Korean book, that was then officialized and adapted into a film. It spoke to the extremely rapid spread of content online, frequently without any regard towards copyright law.

As a Media Studies major that has shied away from film-centric courses, much of the rest of the talk flew over my head. I have little familiarity with the production process of big-budget films, and I was very confused as to whether Connor was using these films as metaphors for themselves, reading into the meanings of the films based on his knowledge of their director, or simply conveying an evidenced, intended meaning.

Mental Illness and Digital Corruption

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My 6th Grade Yearbook Picture – the angst (and sideburns) clearly started early

Hello, everyone, I’m Jackson. I have suffered from a lovely cocktail of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder since the age of nine. Around that time, I started getting wild, uncontrollable mood swings, suicidal ideation, and intense spells of panic. After moving from one middle school to another, and then another, I distanced myself from my friends and family and went to the one place where I felt a sense of safety, security, and consistency: the internet.

I had no one but my parents to talk to until late in my high school, so my primary sense of connection to others was derived from online contact. I watched tons, and I mean tons of YouTube videos with wide-ranging subject matter. To a scared, dangerously under socialized kid, YouTube was a godsend – millions of people were ready to invite you into their daily lives, and their acceptance didn’t hinge on who you were and how you looked. My parents were dismissive about mental illness for nearly all of my life, often attributing my state to some outside circumstance or a passing mood. Online, entire communities were made up of people that had the same circumstances as me: they were confused, unsure of what was happening to their minds, and unable to receive support from family members and professionals.

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Me pointing to my name on the board of INTEL’s International Science and Engineering Fair, you know, like a nerd.

As a young adult, my sole focus was academics. My schoolwork took first priority over everything else, especially social interaction, and since I never had time to build long lasting connections with other people, the internet was the only lens through which I saw the world. Being a naïve, lonely boy, I was at one point drawn to the profoundly toxic “redpill” community, which offered convenient excuses for the way I felt: you are not marginalized because there’s something “wrong” or “different” about you, you are marginalized because you are a white male, and you are under attack. Given my illnesses, I certainly felt like I was under attack at all times. I think all the time about who I would be if I stayed on that path, becoming a seething misogynist and racist. In rural South Carolina, no one would have stopped me. It took me seeing the profound injustices suffered by women and people of color in my community for me to realize that this ideology was deeply wrong, and that realization brought me into new online spaces.

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My favorite student from summer school – she was the by far cutest human being I had ever seen

In high school, I began volunteering at a nonprofit summer school for undocumented youth in my community. That nonprofit fostered such a profoundly loving, caring environment, solidifying my self-worth and the worldview that I have today. I was not allowed to use social media until after I got into Emory, but as soon as I did, I joined tons of leftist Facebook groups, everything from imagine how clever the fedora tipping neckbeard felt finishing this meme to Sounds like White People White Peopling, But Ok (now defunct).  There I became acutely aware of all the bigotry and hatred that I had been surrounded by for my whole life. These leftist Facebook groups catalyzed the formation of the personality and identity that I have today. I strongly doubt that I would have recognized the depth of racism in my family, my school, or myself if not for these online spaces. For months I sat back, not posting anything in these groups and just hearing the perspectives of people that I had been separated from by mental illness, physical space, and nonexistent transportation. Somehow, the internet ultimately raised me to be a kind, caring human being.

File photo of police leading suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby
With diagnoses of “Social Anxiety Disorder, a Mixed Substance Abuse Disorder, a Schizoid Personality Disorder, depression by history, and a possible Autistic Spectrum Disorder” according to court documents, Dylann Roof’s horrifying acts of violence were often pinned on mental illness, not pervasive racism online

 

I say somehow because it is apparent that the internet can take ill, lonely people and turn them into monsters. Dylan Roof, who grew up mere minutes away from me, grew up in remarkably similar circumstances. He was lonely, mentally ill, raised by and surrounded by racists, and spent the majority of his time online. When he killed nine people in a Church 40 minutes away from me, the media blamed it on his mental illness. I could not help but think what would have happened to me if had not realized the evilness of far-right ideology online. What if, instead, I followed that ideology blindly and was radicalized by thousands of hateful people, fed (and believed) false information about racial violence, and constantly validated for espousing racist beliefs. Nazi comparisons are trite, yes, but so many Germans were so easily converted to a violent, repulsive ideology simply because it came to them from a trusted source.

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Here’s a message that my ex-girlfriend received from a complete stranger who defended his actions as being “just a joke” and was never banned despite being reported on numerous occasions.

The concept of “trolling” comes to mind as well – broken people of the internet can both inflict pain and receive it depending on how well they know the rules. If you are over-invested in anything, capable of feeling passionate feelings, or will in any way react to abuse, swarms of Internet denizens will arrive from thin air in an attempt to drive you mad. In the case of TempleOS, one of my case studies for my research essay, “trolls” seized upon the creator’s apparent mental illness and impersonated his online crush, going so far as to convince him that they were married.

The opposite situation is equally horrifying – young men will realize that social credibility on the internet, especially in spaces like 4chan, comes from spouting bigoted vitriol at anyone with marginalized identities and everyone who may not properly cope with emotions. There are thus millions of people among us with no concept of compassion for strangers, who feel no need to do good in the world because they find wickedness more entertaining.

I arrived at my topic of choice after reflecting on what the internet raised me to be. How much of my identity was my own doing, and what routes could I have gone down given the same endless potential of the internet? How could the content that I view have seized upon the darkest parts of my being and wholly corrupted me? And, of course, the topic of my research essay: what is it about the internet that is so fantastic at trapping people and exploiting their illness, sucking away years of their lives and turning them into paranoid, angry people.