After Jean Guerrero’s father tore up his condominium’s walls to find the devices that he believed were monitoring him, her mother diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. The crack cocaine he’d been smoking certainly exacerbated his condition. For Wired, Guerrero honors her father’s claim that he is a TI, or “Targeted Individual,” by treating his story the way a trained journalist should: she goes searching for answers. She casts a wide essayistic net, examining philosophy and psychology, the biblical prophets who modern people would call bananas. She investigates the CIA’s MKUltra mind-control program and wonders if certain psychological ailments can show us things about the world we might not otherwise see. She’s reaching, but only because she’s searching for unconventional, uncomfortable truths in a country where the CIA did actually dose 10,000 American citizens with LSD without their consent. In an era of data-harvesting, she says, aren’t we all under surveillance?
We can dismiss the targeted individual whose persecutors allegedly tormented her about a breakup. Or we can ask ourselves if her story reveals something we’ve ignored about ourselves: a social media dynamic in which we are actually being watched, in which our most intimate lives are exposed, in which we are sometimes mocked and taunted by remorseless strangers.
There’s no mystery that Facebook knows our gender, ages, hometowns, birthdays, friends, likes, political leanings, and internet browsing habits. Facebook can tell, by analyzing our likes and comments, whether we are going through a breakup or a divorce. It can make predictions about our health. It can algorithmically intuit our fantasies and fears and use that information to target us with messaging so personalized it feels like persecution.
Consider this example from my own life: After the Los Angeles Times published allegations of sexual misconduct by a gynecologist at the university I attended, Facebook started bombarding me with pictures of his face in the form of ads, from plaintiff lawyers offering free consultations and injury checks. I’d had an uncomfortable experience with this gynecologist and had been considering sharing my story with journalists after reading the first article. But seeing his face on my news feed every time I opened Facebook felt invasive, almost nightmarish.
My USC classmates and I were being stalked by lawyers who knew we’d attended the university while the gynecologist worked there. It didn’t feel like the platform was presenting an option to speak up; it felt like harassment. The specificity of the ads, their omnipresence and relation to a very personal incident in my life felt like an assault on my process of deliberation—on the integrity of my free will.
Like my father, I was experiencing a form of gang stalking. And it was real.