What is cybertorture? How our minds are vulnerable to online experiences

3 min read
Lexie

Hi, I'm Lexie! I write about information security, Bitcoin, and privacy.

A whip with the lashes made from a stream of ones and zeroes.

What will change if we are forced to move our social circle to virtual lands, browse the web anonymously, and stay permanently at home? Will there still be any crime? Will nations still exist, and will they go to war with each other?

In this world of isolation, information is everything, and those who have information are considerably better off than those who don’t. Information is fought over, information is protected, and information is proprietary. Those with information rule over those without it and every means to acquire information is considered acceptable.

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Further, misinformation can be sold as genuine, and agencies will produce news, similar to how a factory will produce sneakers. Misinformation can also be spread to increase the value of genuine information—anything confusing or difficult to assess will only increase the market price for the authenticated truth.

To make lucrative business trading information, agencies will collect the truth, disseminate it, analyze it, repackage it, and distribute it. To find the actual facts, people will have to get to the source, observe it, or steal it from those that have it.

War and torture in the digital age

Before wars moved into the virtual world, intelligence officers would primarily use fear and pain to control their subjects and squeeze them for information. For example, waterboarding induces an imminent feeling of drowning, which convinces the victim that they can only save their life by giving up information.

Digitally, our physical bodies are safe from such torture—we cannot drown in Minecraft or have our fingers cut off playing Skyrim. But our minds remain vulnerable to the fear of losing our virtual property, our social status, and our circle of friends. The threat of social isolation alone can be powerful enough to coerce us.

Torturing in the virtual world requires resources and coordination, but there are no mechanisms to protect against it. Those with access to servers can easily make your island in Animal Crossing disappear, or take away your rare items in League of Legends.

Social media has already made us familiar with the concept of the Shadowban. Without explicitly telling us, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter can hide our posts and profiles from others’ feeds, making our posts invisible (unless someone specifically looks for them). A lack of likes, retweets, and upvotes can make us feel unwanted, rejected, and unpopular.

On platforms like Facebook, this ability to “mute” users without their knowledge is passed on to page and group moderators. It can lead to mental exhaustion among its targets. The initial feelings of rejection and dismissal later yield to a sense of invisibility. The “silent treatment” has long been used as punishment, and now we have built apps around it.

The psychological effects of online experiences

Hacking the human body is not too different from hacking a machine. You have to learn about its functions, its weaknesses, and its hidden controls.

Being made a digital outcast does not immediately make us reveal our secrets, but it does make us vulnerable. Our craving for recognition and acceptance makes us more susceptible to any attention, allowing a malicious social hacker to exploit our unhappiness and use it to turn us against our peers (or reveal their vulnerabilities).

What you see online is proven to affect you, and whoever controls your feed can control your mood. This can be readily exploited by anyone that appears supportive or caring, which makes it challenging to find new friends or even trust old ones.

Being bullied is a traumatic experience, and inflicting pain or suffering onto others amounts to torture. Cybertorture can be used for financial or political gain, information, gaining influence, or simply out of sadism. And we are only at the very beginning of understanding the threat, and so far, we don’t know how to combat it.

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.