Delusion runs rampant in an information void filled with cheap, fast, unverified trash.
Delusions are born out of a wish to unmask whatever's crawling under the surface of reality. Drag it out from the darkness into the midday sun: get that sweet, horrible validation you were right all along. There were microchips in your brain! The Deep State is managing a Great Reset. The stripper did like you better! You had been put under surveillance, and everyone else was playing dumb!
Or, hear me out, they were being dumb, for real.
The main stage was simple. A borrowed bedroom, a silent house. A steady red dot coming from a dark window on the other side of the street. No drapes, no blinds. The first night I worked myself up into a flare of a panic attack: Xanax knocked me out. Come early morning the dot was gone. After sunset it returned.
I was in Germany, alone; with no friends I could consult and no knowledge of the language. Getting dressed, crossing the street and ringing a doorbell, not an option; calling the police – about what, a red dot? Come on.
A careful sequence of head tilts confirmed it was a trick of the light. LED. A large one, from a massive flat TV screen. Nobody was shooting a laser at my room.
Still, it took the second night for the domestic siege to dissipate, sanity only breaking through the fear because I couldn't get up and sleep in the bathtub. (There was none.) It would have been easier to keep crashing, allowing a small-scale delusion to loop on and on. Good movies are made out of this premise – the main character noticing a crack on the surface, nobody believing them until the third dead body – and clinical case studies follow similar rules, for that matter.
A delusion is a false belief taking root into an individual's mind to the point it shapes their actions, their behavior, their decision-making process, even their ability to function on a basic level. To unlock the medical label of delusion, though, this false belief must be uncommon and unacceptable in the patient's country of residence. (Hence the religious exemption.)
The biggest medical question: is the influx and speed of technological innovation creating a brand new set of delusional beliefs – those we can call internet delusions – or is it just fueling a mix-and-match set of delusions that were always sort of there, bumbling around in wicked clothes? Or is it both?
We can track delusions from clinical records. No clinical records, no chance of getting to the bottom of it. Some false beliefs do have a way of keeping themselves relevant: “I'm actually a real-life historic figure” (the darling of old-timey cartoonists, the man in the sanitarium who keeps one hand shoved in his pocket, acting like he's Napoleon); “I was actually born in a different family” (i.e., royals, performers, carnies or aliens, anyone but the parental unit who raised me – a memorable case study was featured in Robert Akeret's Tales From a Traveling Couch); “someone planted a tracking device in my brain”, surprisingly common all across race, gender, and countries; could be an exaggerated sense of one's importance (I'm so great, I'm worthy of constant monitoring), maybe it's the deep-seated knowledge you're alone, you're prey. “All my secrets are being stolen – and shared on a dedicated website.” Oh hey, this one's new. It did not happen with TV and radio, back when those were the latest magic tools to be introduced in a living room.
1997 is regarded as a tipping point. “The internet” is an alluring innovation you can safely bring inside your home, guaranteed to improve your experience of the world at large. By lowering the price of admission in some areas and simply crashing down the gates in others, it has altered the collective mind. Popular science is late to the scene of the crime, though: peer-reviewed research and case studies take a long time to get released. For instance, if QAnon jumped from “fringe phenomenon” to “shared collective delusion” over the summer of 2020, because of the reported number of believers to be found worldwide, the research papers started dropping a mere year later, due to the violent and highly visible consequences of that particular belief system. (The QAA podcast started in 2018 as a jaunty field guide to the subject: its current incarnation? A grim update on just how many believers committed crimes over the past week, how long they had marinated in conspiracy content before shooting their wife and the family dog, and so on.) Any other information void, meanwhile, gets filled with trash. Cheap, fast, unverified trash.
Want to feel smart? Read up on the research from the late-aughts (such as “Internet Delusions,” Psychopathology, 2005) and watch all the attempts at negotiating with a mass wave of irrational sickness. You know they fucked up! Have a laugh! Yeah, maybe, if the woman who believed a terrorist network was out to get her because she'd fallen down an internet rabbit hole in the name of “research” and now she knew too much – maybe if the woman could learn how the internet truly worked, she could be reasoned with? Maybe delusions and poor understanding go hand in hand? Whoops, the terrorist network woman in question was well aware of how digital tech worked. Nice try. Next.
Flash forward to the muddy now, with contemporary mental health professionals still failing to notice or appreciate the fact everything happens online all the time. Everybody can become displaced in a minute; everybody must learn the correct way to behave in a specific corner of the internet. It's a landscape of iron-clad rules and constant mutation. It is crazy-making.
However, the first solid warning about the mental health impact of misinformation appears in the same Psychopathology paper I've been dunking on for a paragraph:
People who are likely to be psychotic may use the internet to form online communities based around their delusional beliefs and archive a large corpus of online information to support their conjectures. … Combined with the increasing availability of domestic internet access and the fact that on the internet, people who share your interest and lean in the same direction as you are just a few keystrokes away, regardless of the issue’s obscurity, social desirability, or bizarreness, people undergoing the initial stages of psychosis may have delusional beliefs primed, strengthened or deepened by using the internet, where previously they might have encountered very few people (if any) who would agree with their interpretations. (Emphasis added.)
In short: a bunch of dudes contributing to Psychopathology missed the big picture entirely and they managed to hit the single most important note. When everything's online, every click is meant to funnel you into a validation machine, bound to make you triple down on any belief you're holding right now.
A seminal Victor Tausk paper from 1919, The Origin of The Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia, described the “influencing machine” as a fanciful, mysterious tool the mental patient's “enemies” would operate to achieve their evil goals without a physical connection to the patient. Let's say the internet is a neutral machine: its malevolence would be fueled by the same poor habits the internet allows if not outright celebrates. Easy access, endless threads.
Based on available research and observation, I'm identifying three main vulnerability strands to watch out for: loneliness, unprocessed trauma, and failed social/economic integration. A displacement triad, so to speak.
One case of internet delusion reported in a 2006 Israeli study involved a young woman from Latin America who had remained in Israel after the rest of her family moved back home. Material loneliness and a pervasive sense of otherness played a role in this woman coming to believe she was being monitored and remotely controlled online. Otherness is crucial. The podcast Hoaxed documents the staying power of a false ritual-abuse allegation in affluent Hampstead, London, stemming from a poorly assimilated Russian woman and her most recent partner, a British citizen from a lower social background.
My old neighborhood had its own brain-chip woman. She didn't immediately stand out. She ran a small business, despite being foreign she could speak the language fluently; she carried herself with a brisk, confident manner. But she developed a set of false beliefs after years of hard living in a different, unwelcoming country, and after she'd been doing everything right: got some security, got the children situated so they'd go to better schools, watched them graduate college into a bright future. Flash. And then she broke. Only reason this lady received any medical care at all: she started talking about the brain chip situation. The locals alerted her next of kin.
Bummer, I know. But let's talk about love for a second. You deserve to be satisfied. Maybe your life would finally make sense if a charmed individual would pick you as a companion. What if they already noticed and they're sending you signals. A graphic t-shirt they wear often, hints they drop in a chat, those pictures they share. Friend, I'm afraid you're coming down with a case of the stripper-likes-me-for-real delusion. (Been there.) Sure, you might stay married to Destiny in the relative comfort of your own brain. The minute this belief shapes your actions, then you're super fucked.
“I'm secretly dating a celebrity” is, in fact, another psychiatric evergreen; it was called rock and roll delusion back in the mid-eighties, when the general attitude of the medical field appears to have been [crazy people, what you gonna do] if there was space for a theory framing severe mental illness as a groupie hellbent on following the latest hot trends.
Not quite. The documentary I Think We're Alone Now captures a time when erstwhile pop idol Tiffany Darwish was dealing with two different stalkers. Two separate people believed they were having a passionate (but chaste) relationship with Tiffany, twenty years after the singer had been a fixture in the shopping mall circuit. This was not a shapeshifting sickness in search of a character to fall in love with: this was a crack, neat, a faultline opening up when both stalkers had been vulnerable teenagers themselves.
And yet in both cases, the Tiffany delusion was blatantly irrational to any outsider looking in. The singer had done nothing to encourage that display of devotion on a personal level. She could be cordial within the appropriate boundaries for a meet-and-greet opportunity. Her fans had crossed a clear, defined line.
As the definition of “public figure” has been shifting to embrace a greater number of minor celebrities – say, any internet creator who maintains a social media presence – the hyper-personal model of communication can become the default way to interact with anyone not in the room right now. A streamer is a performer who must watch the audience. Whether it's their livelihood or a cool trick to bring eyeballs to a cause, build a community, a streamer needs to entertain and pay attention at once: the audience wants to be seen and compensated in kind for the attention they're giving you. A popular Twitch personality discovered one of her many regulars had kept a blog about the two of them for five years and counting. Full-on delusion about the romantic relationship they had been having, pretty much all the time. The regular believed she was following his cues; the regular complained whenever she didn't deliver on what he believed he was asking her to do.
In a recent personal essay, Jesse Hilson recounted a bad season of his younger life, when the overall post-9/11 media chaos stoked genuine fear and a desire to be useful any way he could: a common cultural landscape and a couple of individual truths converged to form a Voltron delusion about Jesse himself being kinda, maybe on the verge of getting scouted by the CIA. Well-dressed strangers had been spotted around his college campus, reference books were maybe moved around in the libraries he patronized. The rumored presence of observers and covert activities became dominant for a time.
Compare and contrast with Matteo Garrone's Reality, whose doomed fictional hero believes he's about to become a TV star after he auditions for Big Brother. Notice how the “influencing machine” in Hilson's case was just the nonstop coverage of global events, with an excess of speculative pieces coming from respected print outlets. Would Hilson be lucid enough to write about this, had he encountered a tidal wave of bad intel a few years down the line, in a looser, wilder internet space?
We are all in some sense displaced. We are forced to move, we are left behind when our peers move. Don't have kids, fall out of step; do have kids, say goodbye to child-free friends. We want to make a connection, weeks of our single life must be devoted to learning how we're supposed to behave in any space that's new to us. Realty assumes the character of a dull gauntlet. As we make our way through it we look for portals of escape, the least logically sound, and the most harmonious to our prejudices, the better. Weeks turn into months; we've mastered Reddit. There’s nowhere to do but deeper down the rabbit hole.