STAYING CONNECTED: IRL (chapter, 2017)
HYPERREAL PSYCHOSIS: Social Media as the Influencing Machine by Jea Rhee
With the use of social media, our subconscious self has the means to become more “conscious” online. That is, with stream of consciousness thinking and writing/posting, the distinction between our reality and our simulation of reality becomes blurred and less distinct. Our personal online persona (simulated self) feeds information into the vast sea of the web, particularly onto social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google etc… and we become subjects of the Internet. By choice, we display ourselves- often in fragments- to a community, that could be a mix of friends, family, colleagues, and even complete strangers. We choose whether to filter ourselves guardedly on social media, or not at all. In this manner, we either become sensitive or desensitized to digital information platforms.
So what happens to some of us who immerse ourselves into the digital realm of social media, with only our cognitive dysfunction?
I assume many are familiar with the word ‘psychotic’ but perhaps far removed from the clinical definition. I know it well, as I was diagnosed with psychosis and schizoaffective disorder as a young adult. It is a mental illness that encompasses such symptoms as hallucinations and/or delusions, as well as diverse beliefs of grandiosity and paranoia, particularly between the self and others. Psychosis can be defined by a loss of contact with reality. Hyperreality is defined as an “inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality…[it] is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” I’ve conjured up the term “hyperreal psychosis” to further demonstrate the severity of mental illness in the digital age, in that what is “real” and “unreal” in a person’s identity of self and personal story while in this state have no distinct boundaries with the use of technology. With this illness, false realities fuse together in real time with the person’s use of technology and the “reality” of their everyday life.
Like many people with this illness, my experiences with psychosis are isolated incidents (episodic) which means it happens in fragments of time (episodes), It is not a constant state-of-mind, although it is a lifelong illness. Each person experiences things differently but there are many common threads that make this a diagnosis of exclusion. These experiences, as I have personally dealt with, include thoughts of conspiracy , the feeling of being under surveillance, and feelings of persecution from other “powers” (individuals, religious figures like God, governments and so on…). Even sounds and visual signs become meaningful in dictating thoughts or actions. I experienced media, such as television and music “speaking” to me, trying to converse directly with me and send me dire messages. I believed in ideas that people could read and control my mind, and that I was communicating with them telepathically. There were times I didn’t even think I was human, that maybe I was a machine or a program. Overall, I would say that through these episodic experiences, I was engulfed in a narcissistic egotism by going to the deepest reaches of my mind and playing with every thought it could produce, but not by choice.
To someone without psychosis, there is no rhyme and reason to these mentally- unstable thoughts and actions. Furthermore the beliefs the mentally unstable have that their circumstance is rooted in evidence is a hyperreality, a state of consciousness where one is unable to distinguish between imagination and reality. When you begin to include and incorporate digital age technology into this condition, such as social media, there then exists an ability for it to take you from your dark space into a deeper space of isolation. Social media becomes an influencing machine by inversely making it seem everything is being exploited very publicly to the ends of the world, in all its inter-connectivity.
In today’s connective world we are becoming comfortable with the reality that governments can monitor anyone, that hackers can access very personal data, and that corporations like Google and Facebook can gather personal information and sell it or conduct research based on our online presence. The technology exists, and the lack of consent and unethical behavior exists. When these lines get crossed with mental illness such as psychosis, there is a high risk for one to spiral down from “reality”, and to become trapped in a delusional and paranoid mental space that causes them to believe that they are the target and universal center to everything. You don’t need to have a mental illness to understand this, but you experience it differently when you do.
The Internet is a major player in gathering and distributing and sharing mass media and personal information. Since reality is not subject to a singular consensus, the distinction between “what is” and “what is observed,” becomes a projection of identity that can become unhealthy. The Internet is a pool of information that is ever-growing because of how many people contribute to it. We collectively make the Internet with our input and participation. It is now, more than ever, becoming common knowledge that websites are collecting personal information about their users, and artificially catering to their interests based on their input. Social media sites such as Facebook use specified algorithms that dictate some of the things we see online, in our newsfeed, or in advertisements and so forth, but it reaches far beyond just a single application. It extends to what sites you peruse, what you search for, what platforms/browsers you use (as Apps have access to many personal files… i.e. files on your smartphone…. It’s no lie that someone/something could be listening). It seems at times, they know more about us than we do of ourselves, as the Internet is all “connected” in that so-called Global Village where information moves and is received instantaneously through the metaphorical village of telecommunications.
In 2012, Facebook tested a new algorithm for their newsfeed that was done without the users’ knowledge. Public knowledge of the use of algorithms was not widespread at the time. Content on peoples’ newsfeed were filled with stories in response to the “emotion” they thought that particular individual was feeling. The newsfeed would then report stories that were “angry”, or “happy”, based on what emotion they thought the user was feeling at the time they made a post, just like a mirroring. Facebook has a whole separate department doing research on just these newsfeed interactions. Now, this technology has evolved to the use of Emotion-AI. The next advance in technology, according to the company Affective, who are actively creating the ability of digital devices to empathize with our more human characteristics, such as emotion. So, I have to ask how is this 21st Century obsession with social media and the Internet helping us? Or, how has social media become the answer to whatever humanity was lacking before it became like a second skin? Is AI leading us to become reliant on technology and to have a communicative discourse with our devices that have yet to fundamentally understand us? (Think Google Home, or Alexa) Or will they help us when they sense we are in distress?
This is a personal tale of ‘hyperreal psychosis’.
With psychosis, I tend to be hypersensitive to this kind of information sharing. While going through my last manic episode of psychosis, I garnered the newsfeed “feedback” as an attack or reward system between what I was writing or sharing. It appeared to be a game or conversation happening cognitively between self and the big Internet “Bully”. When I wrote about psychosis or was behaving peculiarly with mass posting, articles would begin to pop up on articles that reflected that language. While in a psychotic state, which means I was immersed in a hyperreality, the newsfeed returned articles using derogatory language like “crazy” or “psycho”. It felt as though they were responding to my feelings, my state, and private thoughts, and not just random data. These were posts from individuals/groups I chose to follow, not particularly who were following me. I believed that there was someone on the other side intentionally making responses as a hate fueled troll, personally tailoring what I saw in my newsfeed. Of course in reality, this was false. It was not one individual back at the Facebook office, but an algorithm at work.
During this episode, I let my “demons” play out on and off line. I put up no guards or walls to what I was sharing (as if I had a choice). But I did have wandering ideas about whether I could “cure” this mental illness myself, with an alternative treatment that did not include medication (this thought is not uncommon among people with mental illnesses). My mind was racing and playing games with me, and I wondered whether social media would be my saving grace. As if through a masochistic mental incarceration, I began ‘speaking’ to no one directly but indirectly to the entire world. I was pulled deeper into grandiose delusions by believing I was communicating to the masses beyond my social circle on and off line, that everyone was tuned in (The Truman Show Delusion*), and that through a single channel of language, thoughts and images, “they” directed messages solely to little ol’me. Sometimes I felt coerced to believe in hateful rhetoric and at other times I felt as though I was being given a “thumbs up”, believing in these abstract thoughts and responses.
That is the subtlety of mental illness and result of hyperreal psychosis. Ultimately in the end I was communicating with myself on a public platform with bystanders watching it all play out. Probably confused. I believed I was under surveillance 24/7 in my mental and physical space, which was part of my psychosis, which was not real. Friends who knew of my illness at the time reached out but I would respond of being fine or just “going through some things”, and feel begrudged that they were just intruding on this life-quest/mission that was imagined through my psychosis. Within a psychotic episode, you rarely know you are in it until you get out. It does not define you but the fragility of being exposed to the masses as a false representation of your true self, in which you have no control, is deeply unsettling.
The Global Village can be a resourceful community but should we be weary that there is still something quite not human beyond the technology? Is there a facet that may change considering the direction in which the future of the digital age is moving. Without my medication I perceived myself to being treated through a “virtual” yet real time “reality.
There have been advancements in psychological treatments, such as for addictive or abusive behaviour. Patients are exposed to a virtual reality device and taken on specified scenarios that would “train” their cognitive behaviour based on their previous responses in real life situations. Whether the outcome is successful is unknown as it is still in its research phase. Today there are many ways of healing and there are many resources for support. Facebook and Instagram have launched a way of reaching out to an individual who might seem to be depressed or suicidal based on their posts. They have implemented support systems through their algorithmic AI that will privately contact the user with resources on seeking support and accessing help. They have made it a point to emphasize the importance of outreach. Although during my last episodic experience, these resources were not yet implemented, I believe I still experienced through my own volition, a virtual treatment to my psychosis/schizoaffective diagnosis. I lived over a year in this nightmare of feeling trapped in the web and in my life. I spiralled down so hard that I was finally forced by my partner to seek medical attention. I went a year without medication and it was my worst yet most affirming experience, that yes, I require professional and medical treatment, perhaps I needed more than just to distance myself from my paranoid crutch of technology. But perhaps I also needed this hyperreal psychotic experience. Technology is what is often at the tip of our hands. People with mental illness want to be heard. Need to be heard. And want to be understood when chaos has no reason.
It took some time but for years now, I have been truly fine.
As life is its own sequence of experiences, Hyperreal Psychosis for me was a virtual reality in real time.
REDUXIST CONCLUSION (2019):
IT happened again. ALL over again.
The Sanity Cycle. The Insanity Calamity.
We began where we left off online.
In a hyperreal void. IRL.
IT IS REAL. It is not a delusion.
(To Be Continued…)