There’s something almost supernatural in the way we’ve come to regard the darker impulses of the Internet, as though the Internet is a mythic, mercurial beast that strikes without reason, one that cannot be reasoned with, caged, or defeated. If the Internet decides to destroy you, it seems, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In a sense, that’s true. Online abuse is notoriously difficult to deter and prosecute; perpetrators are difficult to identify—or the case of online mobbing, too numerous—and trying to weed them out often feels like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
The opening lines of Syfy’s new show The Internet Ruined My Life take advantage of this fear: “Once something goes viral, it can’t be stopped. These are the stories of people whose lives were ruined by a single post.”
If that conjures images of an online crimes division of Law & Order, you’re not far off; the show, which debuts on Wednesday, focuses on real-life people who have become targets of online abuse. As the subjects narrate their own stories of cybermobbing and cyberstalking, you’ll get to watch dramatic re-enactments of the events, starring slightly glossier Hollywood doubles of our heroes as they have very dramatic reactions to things appearing on their computer screens. The result is something between a cautionary tale and Internet true crime—which is fitting, as many incidents of online abuse, after all, are both.
Online harassment has made national headlines in recent years, as the tactics of trolls and harassers have grown more organized, dangerous, and shocking. The subjects of the series’ first season include Brianna Wu, a game developer who became the target of a misogynist video game hate mob, and Suey Park, the activist who launched the #CancelColbert hashtag to criticize comedian Stephen Colbert about a racially insensitive joke. Both were driven from their homes at various points by death and rape threats in concert with the online publication of their addresses and phone numbers. Other subjects include less immediately sympathetic figures, such as a chef who reaped the viral whirlwind for using a misogynist slur in a Facebook argument about foie gras, and a young man who lost his job after he posted a picture of himself peeing on nachos at the fast food restaurant where he worked. (As a joke, he assures us.)
On the one hand, the very existence of this show is deeply depressing: We now recognize that the Internet brutally destroys people so regularly and randomly that an entire ongoing television show can catalog these horrors. On the other hand, it’s heartening to see increasing mainstream recognition that online abuse is both serious and real. The fight against online harassment has often been a battle to legitimize the idea that abuse and harm on the Internet are “real,” not just in the eyes of online platforms, but for legislators and law enforcement officers.
Our culture has long given more legitimacy and credence to more tangible forms of harm: We take physical abuse seriously but dismiss emotional abuse as all in the victim’s head; we devote resources to physical health but treat mental health as inconsequential. The way online abuse unfolds can look very different from traditional ideas about abuse too: Our lives on the Internet exist more in our minds than they do in any physical place, and the trauma we experience there tends to be psychological and silent.
That’s not to say that online threats can’t develop into “real world” intimidation or harm. Park, for example, describes being followed into a club by stalkers who had spent days photographing her around the city. But online harassment is often an intangible experience, and therein lies so much of its terror. That tweet from someone saying he knows where you live and he’s coming to rape you is probably full of crap, but you can’t ever really be sure.
It’s awkwardly compelling to watch a show try to filter this experience through the familiar lens of true crime re-enactments. How do you depict the abuses and crimes that take place online without simply scrolling through screenshots of profane tweets and obscene emails? How do you re-enact crimes (or, sure, less criminal forms of bad behavior) when you can almost never see the criminal? And how do you dramatize harm to a victim when it truly is in her head—without minimizing the real damage one’s mind can suffer from abuse?
There’s a moment in Park’s story when she receives a series of texts from someone who claims to be an ex-military sniper: “I’m outside your house, I have a target on you.” We see an actor playing Park read the message on her phone and pace in front of the window, and then we cut to a man dressed in black, locking and loading a rifle across the street. Yup, it’s the sniper.
Strictly speaking, I would guess that there was not actually a sniper there, and one could argue that this makes the re-enactment somewhat less than honest. But it also demonstrates an emotional truth about the experience of harassment that can be difficult to grasp if you haven’t been a target. It’s not that you’re sure that every typo-ridden threat is real; it’s that you’re forever unsure.
Maybe it’s a 14-year-old keyboard hero sending death threats from his mom’s basement, or maybe it really is a disgruntled sharpshooter. Maybe that 14-year-old keyboard hero will, one day, turn into a disgruntled sharpshooter. You can’t know, and that’s what gives anyone with a Twitter account the power to terrorize. Especially when we all carry the Internet with us, threats can start to feel like a miasma that follows you everywhere you go. Or maybe a quantum analogy is best: You are always simultaneously in danger and out of danger, always in both states, and always in neither. The Internet Ruined My Life may deliver that message in an envelope of highly processed kitsch, but it’s still oddly satisfying to see the kinds of crimes many dismiss as imaginary treated with the same overripe seriousness that a murder or an abduction receives on true crime TV.