How to help when someone you know is spiralling online
It’s easy to turn a blind eye, but here’s what you can do when you see someone spinning out via successive Instagram stories or tweets.
Collage by Douglas Greenwood
When I graduated from university and the people I knew there moved on to different cities and jobs and lives, a boy I knew (more as an acquaintance from parties and pre-drinks than as a friend) -- let's call him Tom -- started posting strange things on Facebook. Tom had studied a STEM subject and was smart, funny and politically engaged in a student-y way (he was vaguely on the left and, I don’t know if he would have described himself as such, but he was a liberal rather than a socialist). This was back when young people still used Facebook regularly, so a lot of members of our large, vague group of friends could see it. The posts themselves were strange but within the realm of something someone might post if they were stoned, drunk, hungover or simply having a bad day.
There were angry rants about left wing politics (mostly things a lot of young people would agree with, but very angry in tone); David Cameron, who was the Prime Minister at the time; systemic issues like higher university fees -- which were still fairly new -- as well as Nick Clegg and his role in this; and billionaire celebrities. Easy targets. There was nothing too alarming in terms of subject, but it was a little odd in terms of tone and frequency. Gradually, there came posts referring to specific, non-famous people, but without naming them. Sometimes you could surmise the identity of the person he was talking about in these primitive sort-of subtweets, although I never knew what had prompted him to refer to them. Then it became more alarming: specific posts about people (“strange men”, rather than people he knew, by this point) following and watching him. Then began a series of warnings directed at these people who were, allegedly, watching and following him.
I didn’t feel like I was close enough to this person for his movements online to be my responsibility, but everyone else probably felt that way too.
At this point, it was clear something was very wrong. I had no idea what to do about it, if I should do anything at all. I didn’t feel like I was close enough to this person for his movements online to be my responsibility, but everyone else probably felt that way too. Sometimes I asked people about it, and sometimes people would ask me. News or context would filter through occasionally: friends would say they had heard that someone else had been in touch with his parents and his family were going to do something, or someone would say they were going to call him and check in.
We would watch what was happening and talk about it but we were reluctant to get involved, which was nosy and cowardly. Thankfully, I hear he’s fine now and doing well. But I think about him now whenever I see a certain kind of online behaviour, a strain which appears on Twitter mostly: someone posting lots of angry subtweets directed at a nebulous audience; someone tweeting and deleting very regularly; what I think of as a “town crier” style of posting, where a vague group of people are being told off; picking lots of fights with strangers; or sharing very personal anecdotes. Although, of course, everyone has their own quirks when it comes to spinning out publicly.
Certainly it is fairly rare to see anything as paranoid as what the person I knew from university was posting on Facebook, but there are many styles of less drastic, but still unsettling, content. Really anything that prompts the thought: ‘Why are you doing this, what is the end goal here?’ On Instagram, there is a version of it ushered in by the pandemic, which involves sharing a lot of conspiracy-adjacent memes. Sometimes they have a strong anti-vax sentiment, other times espousing more “acceptable” progressive views: frustration about the rich and famous getting their vaccines early; how “stupid” anti-vax people are; how rich Jeff Bezos has gotten during the pandemic, but posted very frequently and at strange times of the night. Sometimes it is not the content of what is being posted exactly, but the frequency and tone of the posts that prompt the thought: “Why are you posting this?”
When I tweeted about this recently, an overwhelming number of users commented or messaged me with their own experiences. Some had been on the receiving end of online bullying, harassment or stalking (one man said someone had been posting smears about him for 7 years, and he was now taking legal action); some had watched family members become totally radicalised by YouTube videos and Facebook groups; many were reflective and self-aware, recognising their own behaviour online (picking fights with strangers, particularly, came up a lot) as a sign that they were going through a bad patch.
The experience of being bullied or harassed online is isolating because, as many of the people who messaged me said, they are unwilling to speak about it publicly or even to refer to it on social media in case it provokes another episode. Legally, a person’s online behaviour is generally considered to be “harassment” (rather than just being unpleasant) when it includes more than one episode which is calculated to cause alarm, fear or distress to their victim.
I asked Dr Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist based in California, if there was a roadmap for noticing unhealthy behaviour online. “There is no one signal or easy answer,” she told me, explaining that social media should be seen as an extension of “real life” behaviour, and a change in someone’s habits can indicate they are in distress. “Online, that change could translate into [someone being] disrespectful and bullying in discussion posts, a lack of response to emails or texts, or their content becoming dark and negative. More concerning changes would include a change in communication content to accusatory, manipulative, inappropriate or threatening; or indications of disorientation, paranoia or lack of touch with reality,” she said.
“What we would classify as negative online behaviors often overlap with signals of mental distress. They may, however, be more related to personality, feelings of powerlessness or lack of empathy.”
She also stressed that diagnosis of mental illness should only be made by qualified professionals: being worried about someone does not give you the right to assign a diagnosis to them. She added: “What we would classify as negative online behaviours often overlap with signals of mental distress. They may, however, be more related to personality, feelings of powerlessness or lack of empathy.”
On Twitter in particular, there is a culture of ignoring this behaviour. Or even -- in the case of someone starting lots of fights -- of encouraging it, because it is deemed entertaining. Of course, this is something that the design of such platforms actively encourages too. While the concept of mental health has been destigmatised to some extent (for certain conditions, like depression and anxiety) and within certain groups (urban graduates, for example) there is still a considerable taboo over some of the erratic behaviour that someone in distress might exhibit, because it can be unpleasant. This taboo might be even more so if we think unpleasant behaviour is not a sign of distress, but instead “just the way someone is”.
Dr Rutledge advises that those witnessing such online behaviours in a friend take a non-confrontational way of addressing them. “Reach out and say something like, ‘Hey, I saw some posts that didn’t sound like you, how are you?’,” ideally by phone or in person. “Do not accuse or diagnose — that makes people defensive. Just reach out.”
It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, but we owe it to our friends and online acquaintances to put our awkwardness to one side. On the internet we share space with a massive amount of strangers, often forming parasocial relationships as a result. Something especially striking about the responses to my tweet was related to this: that often the person on the receiving end of concerning behaviour (trolling, bullying, etc) had no discernible relationship to the person exhibiting it. When we are more mindful of our responsibilities to each other, the onus is redistributed, and doesn’t weigh so heavily on those that are more visible online than average — or just plain unlucky.