In recent years, discussions around a phenomena called ‘gang stalking’ or ‘gangstalking’ have been increasingly populating forums, subreddits, and Facebook pages—enticing more and more people to wonder what exactly gang stalking means.
Thousands of people across the internet have stated that they are being gang stalked, which according to them, means they have been targeted and obsessively monitored by both governmental and non-governmental organisations with the aim of ruining their lives. They believe organised groups of people (mostly everyday individuals such as neighbours, colleagues, and couriers organising in groups) are stalking them and harassing them through constant psychological stalking.
Following 9/11 and the increasing discussions around government surveillance, gang stalking has become a growing concern among online communities. The individuals who claim they have, or still are, experiencing gang stalking call themselves ‘targeted individuals’, and in most cases they have struggled or struggle with mental health issues such as depression or delusional disorder. From being convinced that they are constantly filmed by stalkers, CCTV and drones, to being followed by black cars or white vans, the signals that make targeted individuals believe they are being stalked are many and hard to prove, as they are often the result of coincidence and obsessive thoughts.
Despite the growing numbers of ‘targeted individuals’ congregating online, there is still very little academic research around the subject, which makes this new phenomena hard to pinpoint, and most importantly, hard to tackle. In 2015, a research article was published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology following a survey of 128 gang stalking victims. The results spoke loudly of delusional beliefs: “One hundred and twenty-eight individually stalked cases were randomly selected as a comparison group. All cases of reported group-stalking were found likely to be delusional, compared with 3.9% of individually stalked cases. There were highly significant differences between the two groups on most parameters examined.”
The article continued, “The group-stalked scored more highly on depressive symptoms, post-traumatic symptomatology and adverse impact on social and occupational functioning. Group-stalking appears to be delusional in basis, but complainants suffer marked psychological and practical sequelae.”
The gang stalking phenomena is full of contradictions but it is without a doubt the perfect byproduct of today’s online echo-chambers that can turn someone’s doubt into a shared obsessive paranoia.
In a New York Times article published in 2016—the year gang stalking started to circulate in the media—journalist Mike McPhate called people affected by gang stalking as “a growing tribe of troubled minds,” linking mental health, conspiracy theories, internet surveillance, and a huge medical research gap as being the perfect recipe for this phenomena to spread. “Mental health professionals say the narrative has taken hold among a group of people experiencing psychotic symptoms that have troubled the human mind since time immemorial. Except now victims are connecting on the internet, organising and defying medical explanations for what’s happening to them.”
Additionally, as reported by a recent MIT article, the blogs and forums where gang stalking is addressed are only fuelling people’s belief that they have been gang stalked on the basis that if shared, the experience automatically becomes real. Back in 2016, it was believed that around 10,000 people were a part of these gang stalking communities. Today, one reddit gang stalking group and another Facebook group put together have more than 22,000 profiles, with hundreds of other similar groups existing online.
Like fear, paranoia can be contagious, and online forums are the best place for conspiracy theories and shared paranoia to spread. The world of gang stalking and its symptoms are still limited in numbers, but nonetheless these speak loudly of new forms of mental health issues originating from toxic online spaces that feed themselves on lack of research and access to facts and certified information.
You’ve heard of social media influencers, but have you ever heard of a social media influencer among the gastroenterology community? Probably not, and yet it is certainly a thing. Dr Austin Chiang is a gastroenterologist who studied at Harvard, but he also is the first Chief Medical Social Media Officer at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia. In other words, part of his job is to get doctors and other health professionals on social media to drown out health misinformation by posting large quantities of posts that are fact checked and, well, not fake. The idea of doctors having a presence on social media sounds unconventional at first, so it makes sense that people might wonder why exactly Dr Chiang’s job was created.
Just like fake news, fake health news come mainly from social media accounts sharing information that is not based on any medical research. And just like much of the speculative and factually inaccurate content shared on social networks, many people ultimately believe it. This is where Dr Chiang’s accounts come as a remedy. His main platform is Instagram but you can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. On Instagram, Dr Chiang has more than 22,000 followers—making him the most followed medical influencer outside the world of plastic surgery and nutritional well-being—and his content represents his two favourite things: medicine and social media.
Every few days Dr Chiang posts a picture of himself with captions about the latest research or advice to patients trying to navigate between real information and rumours. And where do those rumours come from? According to Dr Chiang, from public figures like the 1.9 million Instagram followers and #1 NY Times Bestselling Author Anthony William, also known as the Medical Medium, famous for his book Celery Juice: The Most Powerful Medicine Of Our Time Healing Millions Worldwide.
When looking at William’s online presence, especially his Instagram account, many questions come to mind, mainly how someone with no medical background has harnessed so much credibility by the public. William’s entire Instagram feed looks like a bad infomercial for a blender or an eczema miracle cream and the consistent use of #healing makes for a cocktail of unease and suspicion. Call me crazy, but I’d like to think that if you proclaim yourself as a ‘medical medium’ without any diploma to show for yourself, you are most likely a crook that sees himself as a spiritual saviour.
Anti-vaccination content is another example of fake health news spreading through social media, with communities and groups preaching to anyone willing to believe that vaccination causes autism—a theory that has never been medically proven. Some people go as far as giving a ‘cure’ for autism in the form of an industrial-strength bleach.
Bearing witness to this kind of content online, Dr Chiang’s CEO Steve Klasko came up with the idea of creating a well-needed medical presence on social media with the help of Dr Chiang’s Instagram and hashtags like #verifyhealthcare and #dontgoviral. The solution to this frightening misinformation is providing young people with the right information, and allowing them to access it easily, which means publishing it on social media, where it is known that under 35s spend a large chunk of their time and where they get their news and information.
At the moment, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s goal is to have approximately 3,000 doctors participating on social media, which sounds like a good start. Help from the government (or social media companies like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) in regulating false information could also soon be a necessity. Until then, don’t believe everything you read on the internet and please stay away from Medical Medium.