Part 2: When group affiliation reinforces delusion-like beliefs.
“Paranoia, they destroy ya.” —Destroyer, The Kinks
Conspiracy Theory or Delusion?
Is gang stalking—the belief that there’s a coordinated effort to surveil, harass, and control the minds of thousands of people around the globe—a conspiracy theory, a delusion, or something else? In Part 1 of this post, “Gang Stalking: Real-Life Harassment or Textbook Paranoia?”, I discussed the evidence for the phenomenon being best explained as a textbook example of a paranoid delusion. If you haven’t read it yet, please do so now.
Here in Part 2, I’ll do a deeper dive, examining the intersection of conspiracy theories and shared delusions in the internet era.
To start, let’s dissect the difference between a delusion and a conspiracy theory. In my academic work, I have defined a delusion as “a belief that is contradicted by objective evidence or is at variance with what most other people believe and that is typically preoccupying, held with extreme and unassailable conviction, and influences one’s behavior to a significant degree.”1 I like to define conspiracy theories as beliefs that “reject the authoritative account of reality in favor of some plot involving a group of people with malevolent intent that is deliberately kept secret from the public.”2
Both delusions and conspiracy theories can be held with varying degrees of conviction, but are typically held with very high levels that are unwarranted by objective evidence. And while both occasionally turn out to be true, they cease to be considered delusions or conspiracy theories when that’s the case.
Determining if a belief is a delusion depends on a probability judgment about what’s true or plausible. Since it’s impossible to judge the truth about certain perplexing questions concerning the nature of the universe or human existence, and because having faith in various unproved explanations is clearly normal, psychiatry’s definition of delusion excludes culturally-sanctioned beliefs such as religious creeds.
Indeed, delusions that are evidence of mental illness are not typically shared because they are not typically shareable. Often this hinges upon a self-referential component to the belief—for example, it’s easy to find people who share the belief that God can talk to people or that there will be a second coming of Christ, but much harder to find people who believe that God has told you that you are the Messiah. Herein lies a crucial distinction between delusions and conspiracy theories—delusions often contain a self-referential component involving the believer, whereas conspiracy theories usually don’t.
In that sense, gang stalking is part conspiracy theory (the general belief that there’s a covert and coordinated effort to surveil, harass, and control people all over the world) and paranoid delusion (the more specific belief that it’s happening to oneself). The conspiracy theory part of gang stalking is shared by many people with various levels of conviction, whereas the delusional part is shared only among those few who are convinced that it’s happening to them (e.g., because paranoid people believe that they’re being targeted, they accept that others are too).
SurveillanceSource: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr
Here’s where things get tricky. By definition, delusions aren’t supposed to be shared, except that it’s well recognized that sometimes they are. Historically, this has been described as “folie à deux” (French for “craziness of two”) or more recently, “shared psychotic disorder” before that diagnosis was all but eliminated in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Traditionally, shared delusions have been understood as the result of a dominant individual with delusional beliefs convincing a subordinate that the beliefs are true, whether in a relationship between two people (e.g., parent-child, husband-wife, etc.) or some larger group (e.g., “cult” leader, “cult” follower). Of course, if delusions can be shared to some degree, it leaves unanswered the question of how many people it takes to share a delusion for it to cease to become a delusion.
This conundrum has become more challenging in the internet era, as I discussed in a previous post, “Does the Internet Promote Delusional Thinking?”:
“A hundred years ago, you might search an entire town and still not find anyone who buys into your unconventional belief. But these days you can search across the entire planet with the simple click of a button, vastly increasing your chances of finding support.”
In other words, the internet has made it infinitely easier to find people who might share, or claim to share, even the most unconventional beliefs. And there may be no better example of this than gang stalking, where self-described “targeted individuals” or “T.I.s” have found an online haven from social stigma among like-minded individuals with whom they share common experiences, providing “evidence” that their experiences are “real.” A recent phenomenologic survey of gang stalking provides a striking illustration of how the vast majority of information on gang stalking exists online, often in the form of subjective experiences as opposed to objective analysis:
“…gang-stalking phenomenon… appear to be relatively common. Yet, we could find only one empirical study of group or gang-stalking in the published literature. By contrast, a Google search for “gang-stalking” produced 7,550,000 ‘hits’.”3
Tellingly, when these 2020 survey results were compared to those from an earlier 2015 sample, respondents reported a greater frequency of believing that gang stalking was part of a global conspiracy that’s being “covered up” by the “establishment.” It’s quite possible that these differences reflect the explosion of online accounts of gang stalking over the past 5 years as well as the proliferation of other conspiracy theories during a period of growing mistrust. Indeed, recent gang stalking survey respondents were also more likely than those from 2015 to report finding support online, while counterintuitively being more likely to feel isolated and lonely.
As I’ve discussed in a previous blogpost (“Are ‘Hearing Voices Groups’ a Help or Harm?“), support groups—whether in person or online—present something of a dilemma with regard to the people with psychotic symptoms. On the one hand, those with hallucinations or delusions can find valued support on the internet when it hasn’t been otherwise available, and when they refuse to seek psychiatric care. But on the other hand, such validation can also be harmful, reinforcing false beliefs and keeping people away from potentially helpful interventions in the form of actual treatment beyond simple support.
A colleague of mine suggested an analogy of someone whose drinking has gotten out of control but finds support and reassurance in a bar, enabling their addiction and preventing them from seeking sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous or psychiatric care. I have another real-life example—I once treated a hospitalized patient with schizophrenia who was convinced that government satellites were zapping his body, causing various aches and pains. It took a considerable collaborative effort of trust-building to get him to agree to see if medications might help. But just when he’d expressed a willingness to do so, another patient was admitted who shared similar beliefs about satellites in a group therapy session. As soon as that happened, my patient changed his mind, saying, “See, I knew it was real!”
Beyond reinforcing delusional beliefs and other psychotic symptoms, and keeping people away from potential help, another intriguing possibility that might help to explain gang stalking is that mistaking fiction for fact on the internet can create psychosis-like symptoms de novo.
To learn more about this possibility, please read the upcoming final installment of this series: “Gang Stalking: A Case of Mass Hysteria?”
Read Parts 1 and 3 of this series on “gang stalking”: