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That quote attributed to Andy Warhol — “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” — may be true. But in the internet age, it should come with the caveat that you’ll have to pay for it with at least 15 minutes of hell. Forty percent of U.S. adults have been harassed or abused online, according to Pew Research Center statistics, and two-thirds have seen it happen to someone else. More than 60 percent consider it to be a “major problem.” Presumably the rest have yet to be harassed.

Online abuse can take many forms. Maybe you’re a nearly perfect human and someone just decides to go ahead and destroy your life because of a disagreement on Facebook. Maybe your flawed history has been dug up and wielded against you. Maybe you posted something you thought was funny or wise or cutting, and it wasn’t. Maybe you broke up with someone who wants revenge, so he sends sexy photos of you to your employer and a local newspaper. Maybe you were simply on a plane, and someone with a camera and the hankering to go viral was behind you.

Whatever it is, it’s not to be taken lightly. “The effect of internet communication is quite real on our psyche,” Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, tells me. “I would argue that the distinction between online life and real life is quickly dwindling, particularly with the younger generations, whose social life is increasingly intertwined with online/social media presence.”

Can any of us ever really escape the internet?


Taylor Lorenz is an Atlantic staff writer who covers technology. Recently, she tweeted an image of a sad $22 avocado toast that she’d Seamlessed to herself. It was a “jokey self-own for likes,” she says, but “the harassment I got was literally so aggressive and insane that it was comical. After I saw people screaming at me about feminism and abortions and socialism within the first three minutes, I knew exactly where it was going. I limited my notifications on Twitter to just my mutuals.”

It was a response born from trauma. In 2017, Lorenz was in Charlottesville, Virginia, covering the Unite the Right rally for The Hill. She’d been livestreaming on Facebook when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer. “This guy came and punched me in the face and knocked me down,” she says. Lorenz’s assaulter was arrested; next came the online harassment and hate. People said she was exploiting the victim; others said she was a bad journalist for her involvement in the scene. “That’s when I started deleting my tweets,” Lorenz says. “I thought about quitting media. But you want to show you’re stronger than that.”

For many people who choose to stay on social media despite the attacks—and many people do—immersion becomes a form of therapy, inuring you from the sting over time. You become numb; you block and report to apps that never do enough; you mute people; you shrug it off. You escape by not letting it get to you. As Lorenz says, “I just think Twitter and social media bring out the absolute worst in people, and at some point, you kind of have to laugh at the hell we’ve created for ourselves.” That doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll.

Online behavior is highly representative of group behavior, particularly in regard to aggression, conformity, and prejudice, Noulas says. But it’s actually worse, because it’s easy for assailants to conceal their identity. “The effect is depersonalization,” she says, which can make the attacks feel less real for the person committing them. Obviously, this is much more likely to happen online.

Leila Sales, author of the young adult novel If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, experienced a kind of 1.0 version of the internet mob when she was growing up: A fellow student decided to use a high school homeroom blackboard — the original Facebook wall, you could say — to attack her. “It was months and months of nightmares from there,” Sales says, “a kind of endless parade of shaming.” It was the early days of the internet, so this experience hasn’t followed her through life, but it inspired her latest book, in which a racist tweet by a young spelling-bee champion is picked up by a journalist and spread across the internet. The character is raked over the coals, furious about what happened to her while also struggling with the fear that she’s a terrible person who deserves the public shaming. “It’s this feeling that you have no moral compass,” Sales says. “That you are capable of being hurtful without even trying.”

Of course, there are people who do terrible things online and others who face the angry mob for seemingly no reason at all — but the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. “If you do anything that receives a lot of attention, even a good kind of attention, if it reaches enough people, you’ll get a lot of vicious responses,” Sales says. “The more people who see it, the more likely someone will hate it.”


Is there a way to “escape” the internet? You can go off the grid, which is as hard as it sounds, and even then someone may eventually find you and write a viral feature on you. You can quit for a period of time, but once you publish your story about it, you’re right back on the internet. Or you can take smaller measures to stem the tide, like taking apps off your phone or logging off when they start to cause you stress or anxiety. You can download social media blockers like Freedom and SelfControl and try your hardest to use them. “You want to be thoughtful about the way you use the internet and why you’re going online,” Noulas says. This is far more difficult in practice than it should be.

Signs point to us just having to learn to live with this thing. “There are people who minimally engage with the internet, and they’re quite content with their lives and function well on a daily basis; however, the likelihood of that continuing is slim given how much technology is increasingly expanding into every aspect of our life,” Noulas says. “Rather than escaping altogether, I would focus more on taking breaks from the internet/television/video games in a consistent manner.”

In response to the growing problem of online attacks, some services have emerged to help once you’ve been caught in the crosshairs. Online reputation management companies like BrandYourself assist in creating positive Google results to bury your history. (You can scan your online results for your score at the company’s website, which is as terrifying as downloading your credit score.) Privacy protection services like DeleteMe work to remove your personal information from online data brokers that collect and sell your information. There are people who will help you fight against harassment, “mitigate internet trollstorms,” and recover a sense of safety in the world. Liz Lee, founder of OnlineSOS, started the company after experiencing her own online harassment. At first it provided free mental health services; the company has since pivoted to “empowering people to take action in the face of online harassment,” with resource checklists that can help in a moment of crisis or during the aftermath.

I ask Lee if you can ever escape the internet. The answer: It depends. “What we’ve seen is that for people who rely on the internet for their professional reputation, to amplify their work, to disseminate their message, it’s impossible,” she says. “We’ve also had clients who may not need it for work, but they find their main community on the internet. Leaving those groups or being silenced or ostracized, that’s psychologically traumatic.” It’s not really a question of can you, but should you have to leave?

There’s also legislation, at least in the European Union. Via the right to be forgotten, a concept put into law in 2014 by a European Court of Justice ruling, individuals in EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, can request search engines to remove links containing personal information about them if said material is deemed “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive for the purposes of the data processing.” In February 2018, it was reported that Google had received 650,000 such requests to remove more than 2.43 million URLs since 2014. The company had removed about 43 percent of them.

According to a poll from the Benenson Strategy Group, nine in 10 U.S. voters would like the right to be forgotten. The problem is that, in America, the idea comes up against strongly held beliefs about the freedom to access information and the right to free expression. An internet that is constantly having things deleted is not a very valuable internet at all, some argue, and who has the right to rewrite history? There was a bill in the New York Senate, but now that Senator Tony Avella has pulled his sponsorship, it’s basically dead. And in any case, this kind of legislation doesn’t stop the problem from starting. The bottom line is, as Lee says, “No one deserves to be targeted and threatened online.”

The other problem is that we’re just not far enough along in our internet arc. “The last half of my book was really hard to write,” Sales says. “I didn’t really have any models for what the redemption narrative looked like. For that, I relied 100 percent on studying Monica Lewinsky. What happened to her had an incalculable impact on who she is today, but she has managed to incorporate that in a positive way into her identity. I think she’s one of the only people to figure that out. She’s had 20 years to do it.”

It’s a nice reminder: The future could be positive? Maybe it’s not escape we need, but change. Once everyone has experienced their 15 minutes of fame and its corresponding hell, the playing field could level, making us all a little bit more human, even online. Advocates are already working to make this space better for all of us; before more and more of us are affected, we should join them. “Similar to the #MeToo movement’s momentum, the more people who advocate for safe online interactions and for state and federal guidelines to be created, the better,” Noulas says.

“I think the internet is more toxic than ever,” Lorenz says. “There’s this mass surveillance state we live in; people record each other doing everything. We’re so far from a public reckoning, but I think we’re at least 30 years from it. I do think there will be some norms that develop where people won’t have such an appetite for this kind of thing… I do think things will get better. Or we’ll just live in a dystopia.”