Many of us once saw the internet as a place separate from the real world. But over the course of the past decade, it’s become all too clear that the digital and the physical will forever be intertwined.
In April, 10 years ago, I’m sitting at a beige desk under fluorescent lights in an office entirely devoid of natural light. I am working, but I am also online, deep in conversation on Gchat.
It’s late, well past the time I’m supposed to leave work, but I’m stuck in a conversation with an ex. We are engaged in that boring high energy meandering talk of two people who love each other very much, but are angry and can’t quite figure out how to resolve those two feelings. He says he wants to get back together and then lists each individual thing he is willing to do. They are all things I’ve asked for in the past. But he is upset that this eventual reunion will be tarnished because I have spoken badly about him to my friends. Not just any friends—two friends I am simultaneously speaking to on Gchat.
“i would never betray the things you tell me in tears to anyone else,” he types. “I wish you hadn’t.”
He is becoming irate, insisting that I have said terrible things about him, that I am lying to him when I say I haven’t. It’s true, I am talking about him to my friends, which I tell him, but we differ on what constitutes betrayal. In my mind, I’m telling them about the difficulty of the not-together/together limbo he and I are in. But how would he know that? “There’s a lot more in the way she looks at me,” he says of one friend.
The messages are becoming more specific. “I’ve never shared letters or emails,” he says. I had just forwarded some emails; had just copy and pasted the text from his chat to another chat window with a friend, to get their advice on how I should respond. How could he know? I pick up the receiver on my desk phone and call the coworker I have been messaging online. Do you think he hacked my email, I ask. My friend guides me to the place at the bottom of the screen, now called “Details,” where you can see the IP addresses currently logged into your account. Behold, there are three active IP addresses: one for my phone, one for my work computer, and one unknown. A cold sensation washes over my whole body.
HE HADN’T JUST HACKED MY EMAIL. HE HAD HACKED MY BRAIN.
It seemed insane at the time. Email and chat were where I conducted my dumbest and most private conferences. He had access to exceedingly petty gossip, catchups with friends, notes to myself, emails to guys I was seeing. He hadn’t just hacked my email. He had hacked my brain. It was all there, the various selves I present to the outside world—even to myself—collated and categorized by date and time. It was searchable. All these random bits and pieces had been shaped into a weapon, one that was able to hold me hostage, because it knew everything about me.
* * *
This moment serves as the opening act for a decade that would become defined by our total absorption into the digital. We have blended with the matrix of zeros and ones, our lives rendered across time zones and language barriers. It started slow, at the end of the aughts. We were tugged here by the promise of utopia, a place free of institutional red tape, where everyone had access to glorious amounts of information and an equal opportunity to be heard. In other words, it would be a place without ties to biased, hierarchical reality.
But engaging online quickly became a necessary part of being a person. “As more people began to register their existence digitally, a past time turned into an imperative: you have to register digitally to exist,” journalist Jia Tolentino writes in her essay “The I in Internet.” With that, she said, came the commodification of self, which keeps us endlessly tethered to the web, either as a means of self-promotion or as a way of feeding the human compulsion to connect.
As we’ve remained here, our internet selves have grown more robust. They are more than just usernames and passwords and web addresses and credit card numbers. They are our opinions, a #mood, a list of likes and muted channels. They are our phone numbers and where our packages are delivered and what time we go to sleep at night. We have sent these perfect little representatives into the cloud to prove our existence and in the process made ourselves infinitely knowable to friends, fans, haters, and massive global corporations.
YOU HAVE TO REGISTER DIGITALLY TO EXIST.”
One of the unintended consequences of blending life online with life offline is that it has made the world more mutable. On the web, information can be edited on a whim; pages go up and down; new handles appear and disappear; mimicry runs rampant. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen these qualities trickle into life offline in ways that have made concrete truths feel flimsy. There is a cybersecurity adage that says everything is hackable. It typically refers to computers. But if everything is online and everything can be hacked, pieces of reality are constantly at risk of being reconstructed.
Perhaps no one understands this more deeply than Zoe Quinn, a video game developer and artist. Her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, detailed the demise of their relationship in a 2013 blog post that went on to consume news cycles for the next year in an incident known as Gamergate. The blog post itself is a tedious retelling from the perspective of lover betrayed, both dramatic and pedestrian. It includes exceedingly long and painfully personal chains of text between the two of them—standard fair for the livejournal set. In another era, this sort of rambling would have been confined to a journal or the ears of a kind friend. But here on the internet, it was not only a soul-bearing moment; it was a way to control the narrative of their relationship. Of course, the narrative did not stay controlled.
Gjoni alleges that Quinn slept with her boss before he hired her and then slept with a writer at Gawker‘s gaming blog Kotaku who wrote about her game Depression Quest. These two accusations formed the cross to which Quinn was ultimately nailed. After the post was published, a hoard of online men came after Quinn (and other female game developers), not so much for cheating on her boyfriend but because they believed she had slept her way to the top of video-game prominence. Then, to punish her for this perceived moral transgression, they started hacking into her life.
“The hackers weren’t just posting calls for me to die or talking about what a fat slut I was; they were sharing my personal information: my old address in Canada, cell-phone numbers from a few years back, my current cell-phone number, and my current home address,” she wrote in 2017. “They had edited the post in which I’d talked about standing my ground and not negotiating with online terrorists and replaced it with information showing that they knew where I was and where my family lived.”
The men who did this not only attacked Quinn and disseminated information to help others track her down in the real world, they also refashioned her past. They published as her on Twitter and Tumblr. They rewrote her old blog posts. She was no longer in control of who she was. Her entire existence had been compromised.
SHE WAS NO LONGER IN CONTROL OF WHO SHE WAS. HER ENTIRE EXISTENCE HAD BEEN COMPROMISED.
Much of the controversy surrounding Quinn has focused on the misogyny that she and other women in gaming endured; how men on the internet could reinforce patriarchal views through force. What was overlooked was her ordinariness. Quinn was as online as anyone else who had grown up with a computer. Her minor celebrity overshadowed the reality that anyone’s digital life could be dismantled just like hers.
* * *
A year later, another red flag flicked at our potential for manipulation. In 2014, Facebook’s data science team released findings that its users’ mood could be affected by the kind of content they saw. It was done in response to other studies that had shown Facebook content was making people feel more depressed. The Facebook study, published in collaboration with Cornell University, was controversial both for how it was conducted and for its overstated conclusion. None of the study’s 689,003 participants formally consented to be included. The researchers altered the feeds of roughly half of those users, dialing up or down the number of positive or negative posts they were exposed to. It showed, with statistical significance, that people would post more negative content when confronted with a higher volume of negative content. The same was true for positive posts.
Critics said the study did not prove that Facebook affected a person’s mood. “The very slight increase in the use of positive words could simply be a matter of keeping up (or down, in the case of the reduced positivity experiment) with the Joneses,” wrote Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mt. Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, at the time. “It seems highly likely that Facebook users experience (varying degrees of) pressure to conform to social norms about acceptable levels of snark and kvetching—and of bragging and pollyannaisms.” Facebook’s experiment was more a reflection on the platform’s ability to direct behavior than manipulate our mood, she said.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the rise of social media-driven activism has also shown the range of what it means to direct behavior online. Hashtags, a system of organizing online content once regarded as the digital equivalent of a bumper sticker, have become effective tools for political and social action.
During the Arab Spring, social media was the cudgel with which ordinary citizens could cut down on government propaganda. Since #blacklivesmatter launched in 2013, it has drawn incredible attention to the frequency with which black Americans die at the hands of police. It is credited with sinking the reelection bid of Anita Alvarez, the Chicago prosecutor who chose not to file charges against police officers who killed a total of 68 people over the course of seven years. It has also spurred rallies, the development of human rights organizations, and inspired other major campaigns, including #MeToo. According to PEW Research, nearly 70% of Americans believe that activism online has been important for not only forcing politicians to pay heed to certain issues but fostering long-term social change as well.
INTERNET DENIZENS HAVE THE ABILITY TO CONJURE THE CELEBRITIES OF THEIR DREAMS OUT OF NEARLY NOTHING.
This ability to harness collective energy online has manifested in a number of ways. Internet denizens have the ability to conjure the celebrities of their dreams out of nearly nothing, with a simple follow and retweet or like. Once lofted to the throne, these celebrities use the power of the crowd to send their fans after perceived haters. The celebrities are in turn shamed by another group for bullying normies. This environment has lead to a swell of influencers, pundits, personalities, and even pseudonymous provocateurs, all of whom are struggling to shift the collective gaze to themselves and their causes.
While the capital ‘I’ influencers attract lots of attention for this practice, less is given to their anonymous counterparts. They’re often known as trolls or eggs, but they aren’t simply harassers. They are people who have figured out there is power in invisibility. A minor but important example of their influence can be seen in the rise of SWATing, the practice of serving the FBI a bogus tip to convince them to send SWAT teams to an unsuspecting person’s home. The act is meant to intimidate. It frequently happens to web celebrities and political personalities—people who hold sway online. People who SWAT, by contrast, are often faceless, nameless, the exact opposite of the people who are on the receiving end of a SWATing. In 2008, the FBI reported that between 2002 and 2006, five SWATers made calls in more than 60 cities. Since then, the number has ticked up to 400 calls per year. In 2019, a police chief and former FBI agent estimated that more than 1,000 SWATing incidents take place annually.
These acts of abuse show how a cadre of nobodies can capture attention. It is precisely these kinds of people who have the potential to do the most damage. When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, America was in a state of disbelief because we could not see what caused her defeat. Traditional mass media had been resolute that Clinton was primed to win. It was unthinkable that she could be beat by Donald Trump. Now we look back for signs that could have portended the future we did not anticipate. What we did not see was the mass media disseminated across badly designed Facebook group pages, in heavily targeted ads, across inconspicuous blog posts shared in texts and emails on Facebook. We were not looking at the same front page of the same newspaper. We were all seeing different feeds with different information, living in different realities.
WE WERE ALL SEEING DIFFERENT FEEDS WITH DIFFERENT INFORMATION, LIVING IN DIFFERENT REALITIES.
Two years after the election, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed that the organization he worked for, Cambridge Analytica, had garnered tens of millions of Facebook profiles and was using the information to wage an influence campaign on behalf of Trump. The approach was based on a 2013 paper which found that specific details about a person—their political leanings, their sexuality, their race—could be determined from their Facebook likes. “The predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without obtaining their individual consent and without them noticing,” the paper concludes. It stops short of predicting the worst case scenarios, like mass manipulation.
This kind of “psychological warfare” has become a full-scale operation, sometimes an unintended one. At the same time as Cambridge Analytica’s campaign, teenagers in a Macedonian village called Veles had discovered that they could make a profit on Google Ads if they developed websites hocking stories about Trump that amped up his base. The teens bought up fake profiles on Facebook, used them to disseminate stories engineered for virality to social pages supporting Trump, and raked in thousands. Meanwhile in Russia, the Internet Research Agency, which has been tied to Putin, created Facebook and Instagram accounts to recruit Americans to spread misinformation and incite political action largely in support of Trump, according to reporting from The New York Times.
What is most terrifying about all three campaigns is that they managed to stay hidden from view in a place where everyone is under bright lights. Even now there is a lot we don’t know about them—like how impactful they were. What we do know is that these fake accounts attracted a lot of people and convinced them to share lots of stories, many of which were not true. We also know that these accounts were effective in pushing people to start rallies, to take action in real life, to rearrange their identities, even in small ways.
* * *
We often talk about uploading your brain to the cloud as this futuristic thing, a Westworldian vision that is somehow out of reach. But the past 10 years have given us a multitude of examples in which we are already physically ported into the matrix. The question is: What do you do about it? How do you regain control of your own truth?
Right before I confirmed my email had been hacked 10 years ago, I demanded, in total futility, that my not-boyfriend cop to what I suspected he had done.
“tell me what you think I betrayed and tell me why you think it,” I wrote.
“what the hell are you talking about,” he wrote back. “i think you talk shit. hello. can you fill me in here? Ruth? Hello?”
THE QUESTION IS: WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT IT? HOW DO YOU REGAIN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN TRUTH?
I had already shut my computer. It was over. It should never have been surprising that he would hack into my email; our proximity to each other made it as easy as opening my diary.
Pulling back on the internet is not as simple as putting a journal back on the shelf. Of course, lots of people who have suffered harassment online have gone on hiatus. Celebrities famously love to turn off their accounts for a period of time only to flick them right back on. Sometimes doing so is warranted. When Zelda Williams turned off all her social media accounts because of a torrent of unrelenting vicious imagery sent to her in the wake of her father Robin’s suicide, everyone understood her need to power down. It is important to take care of ourselves.
However, we should be careful not to live in isolation. After all, the goal of abuse is to shut someone up; to make them feel alone. Maybe we can all be a bit more like Zoe Quinn, who in the aftermath of Gamergate did not go offline. “If that’s the solution to online abuse, what we’re saying is that we’re going to cede the internet to whoever screams the loudest at the most people, and just hand over this amazing technological achievement to the nastiest people,” she told The Guardian. She changed her passwords and not only moved on, but took action, building an anti-harassment platform.
I have fallen somewhere in between. There is a lot less of me online than there could be. My Instagram account is private. I don’t post on Facebook. I tweet intermittently and never engage in fights. I used to be on Snapchat. I am not on TikTok. There is nothing aspirational about my online presence. In truth, I live in fear, but I also know that my silence will not protect me.
I admire Quinn for her ability to get over it; to feel the nagging pang of exposure and resist the urge to hide.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.