FOR years they lived in solitary terror of the light beams that caused searing headaches, the technology that took control of their minds and bodies. They feared the stalkers, people whose voices shouted from the walls or screamed in their heads, “We found you” and “We want you dead.”
When people who believe such things reported them to the police, doctors or family, they said they were often told they were crazy. Sometimes they were medicated or locked in hospital wards, or fired from jobs and isolated from the outside world.
But when they found one another on the Internet, everything changed. So many others were having the same experiences.
Type “mind control” or “gang stalking” into Google, and Web sites appear that describe cases of persecution, both psychological and physical, related with the same minute details — red and white cars following victims, vandalism of their homes, snickering by those around them.
Identified by some psychologists and psychiatrists as part of an “extreme community” on the Internet that appears to encourage delusional thinking, a growing number of such Web sites are filled with stories from people who say they are victims of mind control and stalking by gangs of government agents. The sites are drawing the concern of mental health professionals and the interest of researchers in psychology and psychiatry.
Although many Internet groups that offer peer support are considered helpful to the mentally ill, some experts say Web sites that amplify reports of mind control and group stalking represent a dark side of social networking. They may reinforce the troubled thinking of the mentally ill and impede treatment.
Dr. Ralph Hoffman, a psychiatry professor at Yale who studies delusions, said a growing number of his research subjects have told him of visiting mind-control sites, and finding in them confirmation of their own experiences.
“The views of these belief systems are like a shark that has to be constantly fed,” Dr. Hoffman said. “If you don’t feed the delusion, sooner or later it will die out or diminish on its own accord. The key thing is that it needs to be repetitively reinforced.”
That is what the Web sites do, he said. Similar concerns have arisen about a proliferation of sites that describe how to commit suicide, or others that promote anorexia and bulimia, providing detailed instructions on restricting food and photographs of skeletal women meant to be “thinspiration.”
For people who regularly visit and write on message boards on the mind-control sites, the idea that others would describe the sites as promoting delusional and psychotic thinking is simply evidence of a cover-up of the truth.
“It was a big relief to find the community,” said Derrick Robinson, 55, a janitor in Cincinnati and president of Freedom from Covert Harassment and Surveillance, a group that claims several hundred regular users of its Web site. “I felt that maybe there were others, but I wasn’t real sure until I did find this community,” Mr. Robinson said.
There is no concise survey of mind-control sites or others describing gang stalking — whose users believe that groups of people are following and controlling them, as part of a test of neurological or other kinds of weapons likely conducted by the government — on the Net. But they are easy to find. Some have hundreds of postings, along with links to dozers of similar sties. One, Gangstalkingworld.com, welcomes visitors with this description: “Gang Stalking is a systemic form of control, which seeks to destroy every aspect of a Targeted Individual’s life. The target is followed around and placed under surveillance by Civilian Spies/Snitches 24/7.”
The site lists more than 71,000 visitors, and it has links to several other sites, including Harrassment101.com, which has 965 posts.
One poster to Gang Stalking World wrote in August: “It’s insane that I daily have to come home and try to figure out if my Web sites will still be up or shut down. This week they have really been playing with me, and so it was my time to play back.” The post directs readers to other gang-stalking sites should their favorite sites be shut down.
Mr. Robinson said in an interview that that he has been tortured and abused by gang stalkers and by “neurological weaponry” since leaving the Navy in 1982. “To read the stories and the similarity of the harassment techniques that were going on, to hear about the vandalism, appliance tampering and all the other things were designed to drive a person crazy, who do you go to with this?” he said. “People will say you are delusional.”
For Mr. Robinson and several other Web site users interviewed for this article — all of whom insisted they were not delusional, including one man who said he had been hospitalized in psychiatric wards — the sites provide the powerful, unfamiliar experience of being understood by others.
“By and large, most people are sane and coherent and can relate exactly what’s happening to them,” Mr. Robinson said. “They can say the things that would otherwise get them labeled as delusional.”
His group of self-described “targeted individuals” met offline in Los Angeles last month for their inaugural conference, he said, where they attended a meeting to share stories, including the humiliating experiences of being told they are insane.
Mental health experts who have closely looked at the Web sites are careful to say that there is no way to prove if someone posting on, say, Mr. Robinson’s site, Freedomfchs.com, which says its mission is to seek justice for those singled out by “organized stalking and electromagnetic torture,” is suffering from mental illness.
Vaughan Bell, a British psychologist who has researched the effect of the Internet on mental illness, first began tracking sites with reports of mind control in 2004. In 2006 he published a study concluding that there was an extensive Internet community around such beliefs, and he called 10 sites he studied “likely psychotic sites.”
The extent of the community, Dr. Bell said, poses a paradox to the traditional way delusion is defined under the diagnostic guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, which says that if a belief is held by a person’s “culture or subculture,” it is not a delusion. The exception accounts for rituals of religious faith, for example.
Dr. Bell, whose study was published in the journal Psychopathology, said that it does not suggest all people participating in mind-control sites are delusional, and that a firm diagnosis of psychosis could only be done in person.
For people who say they are the target of mind control or gang stalking, there may be enough evidence in the scientific literature to fan their beliefs. Many sites point to MK-ULTRA, the code name for a covert C.I.A. mind-control and chemical interrogation program begun in the 1950s.
Recently the sites have linked to an article published in September in Time magazine, “The Army’s Totally Serious Mind-Control Project,” which described a $4 million contract given to the Army to develop “thought helmets” that would allow troops to communicate through brain waves on the battlefield.
And the users of some sites have found the support of Jim Guest, a Republican state representative in Missouri, who wrote last year to his fellow legislators calling for an investigation into the claims of those who say they are being tortured by mind control.
“I’ve had enough calls, some from credible people — professors — being targeted by nonlethal weapons,” Mr. Guest said in a telephone interview, adding that nothing came of his request for a legislative investigation. “They become psychologically affected by it. They have trouble sleeping at night.”
He added: “I believe there are people who have been targeted by this. With this equipment, you have to test it on somebody to see if it works.”
Dr. Bell and some other mental health professionals say that even if the users of such sites are psychotic, forging an online connection to others and being told — perhaps for the first time — “you are not crazy” could actually have a positive effect on their illnesses.
“We know, for example, that things like social support, all of these positive social aspects are very good for people’s mental illness,” Dr. Bell said. “I wouldn’t say it’s entirely and completely positive, but it can be positive.”
Some research has shown that when people with delusions undergo group cognitive therapy, the group process can be helpful in their treatment.
But the Web sites are not moderated by professionals, and many postings discuss the failure of medication and say that mental health professionals are part of the conspiracy against them.
“These people lead quietly desperate lives,” said Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. “And if they are reinforcing each other and pulling people toward something, if they are using the Internet and getting reinforcement, that’s good.”
The mind-control sites remind some experts of the accounts of those claiming to have been abducted by aliens in the 1970s and ’80s. One person’s story begat another until many insisted they had had virtually identical experiences of being taken onto space ships by silvery sloe-eyed creatures.
Some of those now posting on mind-control sites say they are being remotely “sexually stimulated” by their torturers. Some alien abductees had said similar things. Subsequent research generally showed that those who believed they had been abducted were not psychotic, but suffering from severe memory and sleep problems, or personal traumas, Dr. Bell said.Psychiatrists and researchers say it is too soon to say whether communication on the Internet among people who may be psychotic will negatively effect their illnesses.” This is a very complex little corner,” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. “Some people may find it’s healing, but these are really hard questions. The Internet isn’t a cause of mental illness, it’s a complicating new variable.”