I recently watched a documentary about some people who had gotten in trouble online. One of them read a story online that captured their imagination, made them feel that they had learned something about the world that others didn’t know. Something that made the world make a little more sense to them. They heard about a larger than life entity who understood them, could make things right for them, protect them, who would – if they suffered – come to rescue them. This entity was a little frightening, too, but that was good, right? Because a frightening entity could be frightening on their behalf, stand up for them, right wrongs – if they just put their faith in this person. But they would have to prove themselves for this entity, prove they were worthy by doing things on behalf of this entity.
This first person was perhaps feeling isolated. There were reports later that this person perhaps felt lonely and left out, isolated. Then they made a friend – on a bus of all places – and those around them felt relieved that they would no longer be lonely.
Except they introduced the story they had learned online to their friend. Their friend went online, checked it out. At first it seemed just that: a story. But the more the new friend learned, the more rational it seemed. The more they looked online, the more they found other people who testified to the truth of the story. They found photographs, personal testimonials, videos that supported this new beliefs they had learned about. It seemed that everyone knew about this story, everyone knew it was true.
And then they came to believe that this entity, this all-powerful being, needed them to do something to support the mission it was on. It needed them to do something brave; something to demonstrate their belief; something they didn’t want to do, but that they needed to do to set things right. After doing this thing, their lives would be transformed, things that they wanted in their lives would finally happen.
All they had to do was serve what this entity wanted them to do.
So they took action.
And were promptly arrested. They were examined by psychiatrists. There was some question about one of these people having a mental health diagnosis – there was a family history. But both of them are incarcerated, probably for the rest of their lives.
These events took place long before we all began talking “fake news.” They took place outside the political arena. They weren’t triggered by the big Facebook algorithm that caused you to get referred to conspiracy theory sites from sites about healthy eating.
They had nothing to do with shooting political figures that you disagreed with. This didn’t involve organizing and participating in terrorist attacks on state or national government. It didn’t refer to space lasers or fake voter fraud. In fact, I think you could easily assume that the participants couldn’t care less about anti-vax, Q, politics, gun rights, or any of the things that are in the headlines right now.
Their story seems an interesting precursor or warning that we might end up where we are right now.
This is a story about two 12-year old girls who stabbed a third 12-year old girl, their friend, because they believed that a mythological character that had gained popularity online wanted them to. No one explicitly told them to do it, they weren’t following Twitter or FB groups where this character spoke out about imagined slights, lied to them, told them to take action, to serve him loyally by rising up on his behalf.
Watching this documentary, which was made in 2015, I listened to the adults in their lives talk about the vulnerability of children with unsupervised access to the internet. I listened to psychologists talk about how loneliness and isolation, a sense of victimhood, can predispose vulnerable children to false beliefs. I watched as experts on urban legends, folk tales, fairy tales, and internet memes, talked about the contagion of ideas, viruses of the mind.
And I wondered what this documentary would look like if it were produced today.