The internet creates an echo chamber for delusions and conspiracies.
It starts with a question. "Am I going mad, or....?"
In "gang-stalking," everything seems connected, and inconsequential details acquire new purpose. That person who crossed your path earlier. That siren outside your window. That chair in the kitchen—is it where it was before? Has someone been in your house, moving things around? Are there microchips under your skin?
A vast online community has formed over the last decade around a belief in gang-stalking, with "targeted individuals" sharing stories of mobs of stalkers, mind games, thought control, and extreme surveillance being used to destroy their lives.
Most often kept to the febrile fringes of the conspiracy web, gang-stalking appeared in mainstream news this week in reference to the Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long, a former marine who killed three police officers and injured three others before being shot dead.
"It's difficult to say how widespread the problem is but it's certainly not uncommon"
Media outlets pieced together Long's online presence as "Freedom Strategist" and "Mental Game Coach" Cosmo Setepenra, the pseudonym he used to create a series of e-books, YouTube videos, and a Twitter feed. Reports also connected Long to posts on a page titled "Stop Organised Gang Stalking," where a user named cosmo717 was presumed to be Long.
Gang-stalking victims describe "complex systems" financed by the US government, employing "civilian volunteers, government agents, contractors, and often dangerous ex-convict felons" to harass people. Gang-stalking functions as a nexus for further conspiracy. Search online and you will find its infinite varieties: "psychotronic torture," where sufferers believe they have been unwittingly implanted with "brain transmitters" which eavesdrop on their thoughts, conspirant family members who double as "perps," Morgellons Disease, the controversial "fibers under the skin" condition… the list continues.
Dr David Crepaz-Keay of the UK's Mental Health Foundation said he had encountered patients who fit this profile. "I can easily see how a combination of behaviours (individual and public) can create a plausible impression of gang-stalking," he said.
Gang-stalking fears act as a trap: The believer behaves warily in public, and people respond to this by treating them as unusual. Crepaz-Keay explained, "This behaviour reinforces the anxiety and sparks paranoia, which increases the physical and verbal reaction which in turn increase the intensity of public response. So although there is not a concerted stalking activity, it is very easy to interpret real-world behaviour as if it is co-ordinated."
A report in the New York Times last month described gang-stalking as a community "conservatively estimated to exceed 10,000 members," dispersed across blogs, forums, Facebook groups, and YouTube. Complaints of gang-stalking run from mild nuisance to severe trauma and self-harm. Posts describe sufferers going on the run, becoming homeless, and severing contact with friends and family.
The conspiracy has evolved a densely populated online world, one where confirmation bias is king, but where sufferers can accept and support each other. They publish manifestos. They make their own (troubling, unfunny) memes.They advocate use of "orgone tools" and "etheric resistance" against the "diabolical scum bags" who torment them.
"The internet creates a sort of 'closed ideology echo chamber' wherein people who share unusual beliefs reinforce each other's thinking"
Inevitably, an e-book industry has also sprung up around gang-stalking, offering guides on "How to Deal with and Defeat Gang Stalkers" ("They attempted to stop her from publishing this book by deleting it from her computer and causing formatting problems with ALL previous editions. Multiple perpetrators are involved suspected and unsuspected") and works of fiction.
A recurrent theme in gang-stalking communities is a distrust of mental health professionals.
There is only one research paper specifically on the topic, written by forensic psychologists Lorraine Sheridan and David V James and titled "Complaints of group-stalking ('gang-stalking'): an exploratory study of their nature and impact on complainants." It was published in 2015 in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology. The tags attached to the paper are telling: "stalking," "group-stalking," "victims," "delusions," and "post-traumatic disorders."
In the study, 1,040 self-defined victims of stalking filled out an anonymous questionnaire on a website offering advice and support. One hundred and twenty-eight of the respondents reported group-stalking. Their complaints were a vivid cross-section of gang-stalking allegations, including reports of "teams of men in black vans," "everyone in the street being 'plants' acting out roles towards the victim," "'more than a thousand' people being involved,""use of 'voice to skull' messages," "witchcraft focussed through gold objects," "organised electronic mind interference," and (categorized by the researchers under "bizarre") "docile family dog replaced by exact double with foul temper" and "remote enlargement of bodily organs."
I spoke to one of the paper's authors, Dr Lorraine Sheridan, by email. "It's difficult to say how widespread the problem is but it's certainly not uncommon," she said.
The study's results were not surprising: Among the gang-stalked, all were found to likely be suffering from delusions and rated more highly for symptoms of depression, trauma, and adverse impact on social functioning. They reported feelings of going mad, depression, fear, distrust, and suicidal ideation. Their relationships broke down, they had lost jobs, and some had decided to carry a weapon. Victims were unable to identify their stalkers by name. The majority of them, curiously, were women. Overwhelmingly, they said they would not go to the police for fear of being ignored.
The damage caused by delusions of gang-stalking is progressive, until it consumes every moment of a sufferer's life. Some become jobless and homeless, though others are just about able to continue functioning as before. "In these cases, friends and family of the individual often suffer the most," said Sheridan. "Some people even profit from their beliefs, making lots of new friends and contacts via the internet and becoming campaigners/speakers/writers focused on educating people about gang-stalking."
Gang-stalking also borders on a fear of technology itself
Since the study's publication, mental health professionals have contacted Sheridan to comment on how hard gang-stalking beliefs are to eradicate in their patients. Members of the community have sent threats and accused her of being paid by the government (for the record, Sheridan says nobody paid her to produce the study).
Sheridan believes that the idea of gang-stalking has always existed as a delusion, but that the internet has helped it to grow. "The internet creates a sort of 'closed ideology echo chamber' wherein people who share unusual beliefs reinforce each other's thinking. There is no counter-argument within these groups, they are like minds," she said.
On the Gang Stalking Wiki, Sheridan's study is listed as "Kooky Stuff," and dismissed as deliberately misleading ("The readability is very low. You're not supposed to understand it."). Creating their own media is key to the gang-stalked cause, as mainstream outlets invariably dismiss them. Members of the community even claim that Wikipedia is against them: the author of the Gang Stalking Wiki claims that their article is heavily guarded as part of a plot to influence search results.
One of the conclusions Sheridan arrives at in her study is that "the manner in which these subjective phenomena are interpreted by those who experience them is coloured by the social and political preoccupations of the age." This is apparent in how gang-stalking blogs mention films—A Scanner Darkly and, predictably, The Matrix feature often (the gang-stalking subreddit even uses its signature green-text-on-black-background print), as do Cronenberg's videogame-as-reality film eXistenz and Videodrome, in which a snuff film channel corrupts its viewers' minds.
Much as in Videodrome, gang-stalking also borders on a fear of technology itself. Some sites conflate trolls, catfish, and scammers with paid "counterintelligence agents." The instructions for combatting them are no different to basic online security: don't friend strangers and check the profiles of random requests. Gang-stalking victims who believe they have been microchipped or targeted with "electromagnetic torture" take this further, assuming a direct link between technology, the mind and the body, and fearing the contamination of all three.
The jargon the gang-stalking community employs is almost combative, implying a desire for order and control. It's worth considering that the gang-stalking community is struggling to adapt to exponential change and acceleration; that theirs is an exaggeration of our own discomfort with real things, like surveillance.
Sheridan agreed. "Technology develops rapidly and it's pretty normal to distrust something we don't understand," she said. Combined with gang-stalking beliefs, this distrust can evolve into paranoia: "This is a pretty obvious link as technology is everywhere and it can genuinely be used to monitor, surveil, and ultimately abuse people. "
Long is thought to be the third mass shooter to consider himself a "targeted individual", alongside Myron May, who killed three people at Florida State University in 2014, and Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013 and who, like Long, had contacted anti-stalking association PACTS International (People Against Covert Torture and Surveillance).
But most sufferers lead relatively uneventful lives, the only difference between them and the average person being that they believe that guy at the garage is an agent of COINTELPRO.
The gang-stalking community is not unlike mainstream social media, in that it trades upon mutual flattery. Gang-stalking victims document everyday life, and search for validation online. They mutually encourage each other to believe that they are not ordinary, but somehow worthy of being stalked, the stars of their own Truman Show.
"Mimicking," as a gang-stalking claim, is especially poignant in this regard: The sufferer believes that strangers are dressing and behaving like them on purpose, in a bid to drive them insane. The thought rarely occurs that this is a coincidence—that they happen to be just like everyone else.
If you're worried about mental health issues affecting yourself or someone you know, you can reach out for information or support from organisations including Mind in the UK on 0300 123 3393, or to the SAMHSA helpline in the US on 1‑877‑726‑4727.