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The Other Victims of the Surveillance State

No doubt [Araya] Baker’s experience is legitimate, and, of course, it is true that state surveillance is a very serious problem, but paranoid delusions are real, too.”

The surveillance state is a threat to everyone in a free country. But that does not mean that it impacts everyone in the same way. For some, state surveillance may provide a welcoming sense of security. For others—activists, whistleblowers, libertarians, and the like—the surveillance state is not only the ultimate villain; it also directly threatens their way of life and their basic sense of freedom. Then there is a third group: the paranoid, the neurotic, and the delusional. For these individuals, the surveillance state does not even need to exist in reality; its purported or hypothetical existence is enough to be utterly life-deranging. When discussing the issue of surveillance, this third group is invariably ignored, which inadvertently feeds into delusional beliefs, causing unnecessary harm to a delicate group in society. 

It is important to be aware that we live in some kind of a surveillance state, but it is equally important for media outlets to realize that their coverage of this topic is contributing to rising levels of paranoia in our society. According to Daniel Freeman, the author of the 2008 book Paranoia: the 21st Century Fear, “Over-reporting of dangers fosters a culture of paranoia…The more something is repeated, and the more graphic and emotional it is, the greater the impression it makes upon us.” Paranoia in our culture has been on the rise for a while. Some researchers believe that as many as 1 in 6 people fall somewhere on a paranoia spectrum.

Consider how surveillance is described by mainstream outlets. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that the government “operates in near-total secrecy,” wielding “unchecked power” to “spy” on our phone calls, text messages, emails, and Internet activity. According to Vice, the government is actively trying to expand mass surveillance until there are “eyes everywhere.” A recent article in Slate ups the threat even further, arguing that while the Internet brought about mass surveillance, “AI will enable mass spying.” 

This language seems to be crafted specifically to elicit fear in readers. Rather than ever mentioning, for example, that surveillance cameras have been shown to reduce crime, these types of articles emphasize how surveillance technologies are wielded against an innocent public. In the most egregious cases, articles related to state surveillance are written with language that justifies true paranoid delusions.

On January 10, 2024, Psychology Today published an article that serves as a prime example of this problem. The article was recently scrubbed from its website, indicating that Psychology Today likely became aware of the issues described below. However, the article was up long enough to be reprinted by at least two paranoia-infused websites: and People with paranoia can continue to read and share the article, knowing that it was initially published on a credible outlet by a credible author. 

The article in question, “The Threat of Surveillance for Activists in the Public Eye” by Araya Baker, describes how government surveillance is a major threat to the civil liberties of activists and whistleblowers. This is obviously true. Baker highlights the infamous cases of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveilling James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. For example, Baker writes, “In 1967, a year before King’s assassination, [the FBI] launched a covert surveillance operation on ‘subversive’ Black leaders and civil rights groups. The objective, according to the FBI memo, was to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’ their decolonizing, liberatory agenda.”

The problem with Baker’s article is that he conflates the FBI’s activities in the 1960s with the modern-day phenomenon of “gang stalking.” In Baker’s view, gang stalking is just as real and just as sinister as the government covertly surveilling King. “It is not uncommon,” Baker writes, “for wealthy, well-connected leaders and institutions to engage in gang-stalking by blackmailing, bribing, or otherwise incentivizing law enforcement to side against whistleblowers.” 

Baker makes this claim without citation, so it is not clear what he means by this type of gang stalking being “common.” However, more to the point, Baker is totally dismissive of the paranoid delusion whereby people think they are being gang stalked by powerful individuals when, in fact, they are not and when it is all in their minds.

According to a 2016 article in The New York Times, there is a growing number of people who believe, irrationally, that they are targeted by gang stalkers. This troubled community “has proliferated since 9/11, cradled by the internet and fed by genuine concerns over government surveillance.” Although this community has not been carefully studied, psychiatrists say that many of these individuals “appear to have delusional disorder or schizophrenia.”

The New York Times references one study by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and forensic psychiatrist David James that “examined 128 cases of reported gang-stalking.” The study, published in 2014, determined that all the subjects—who refer to themselves as “targeted individuals” or T.I.s—were “most likely delusional.” According to James, “One has to think of the T.I. phenomenon in terms of people with paranoid symptoms who have hit upon the gang-stalking idea as an explanation of what is happening to them.” In terms of the scope of this phenomenon, Sheridan and James note in a 2020 study that “as many as 0.66% of adult women and 0.17% of adult men in the western world may suffer the subjective experience of being group-stalked (‘gang stalked’) at some point in their lives.”

None of this is to suggest that people are not legitimately stalked, either by creepy individuals or, yes, even by the FBI. But there is a stark difference between those who actually face a real threat and those who face a threat born out of paranoia. If it is difficult to imagine a person clinging to such a paranoid delusion, consider this documentary by Vice, which includes interviews with people who claim to be targeted individuals yet who are clearly suffering from mental health issues. Or consider the forum conversations that pop up with a Google search for “gang stalking” or “targeted individual.”

On Quora, in response to the question, “How do I stop gang stalkers?” one user responds:

“You don’t. You condition yourself to not react. Their tactics are psychological in effect. Realizing it is a game geared at your reactions, you mindfully cease and desist from reaction. You learn to live among the activity. This is the hope of existing within the scenario. While their sick motive is to leave you disheveled, you can only control your participation.”

Another user suggests a different approach:

“Let them know you are not scared of them by reverse stalking them. Go to the attorney general in your state and complain about gangstalkers harassing you and you fear for your life. Do the same with your congressman, senator, Mayor and alderman. Get a gun and defend yourself if they invade your house, personal space, car and attempt to do harm to you.”

As The New York Times notes, the T.I. community “is divided over the contours of the conspiracy. Some believe the financial elite is behind it. Others blame aliens, their neighbors, Freemasons or some combination. The movement’s most prominent voices, however, tend to believe the surveillance is part of a mind-control field test done in preparation for global domination.”

People suffering with paranoid beliefs often are not in a position to realize that their thoughts are detached from reality. To overcome their paranoia, they may need help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. 

This message, unfortunately, is conspicuously missing from Baker’s article in Psychology Today. Although Baker is writing specifically about activists and whistleblowers becoming victimized by gang stalkers, the points made in the article are all phrased in such a way as to illicit paranoia in any reader—particularly those susceptible to paranoid thoughts. For example, Baker writes ominously, “With the stroke of a pen, a judge can issue a court order mandating police surveillance.” The police, the wealthy, well-connected leaders—they are all out to get law-abiding citizens who dare to express the wrong opinions, and with “the stroke of a pen,” a judge can authorize them to terrorize a person’s life with gang stalking tactics.

The most troubling detail about Baker’s article is found in the references section. While most of the references are standard, credible sources (Reuters, The Guardian, etc.), there is one eye-catching exception: the third reference links to an amazingly unhinged, wildly paranoid article: “Organized Gang Stalking: What You Need to Know.” This article, found on a juvenile-looking WordPress website, apparently exists to legitimize every conceivable paranoid belief related to gang stalking. It is unclear why Baker included this reference, but its presence as a reference suggests that Baker relied on information from this website to substantiate his claims and/or views about gang stalking, which is troubling. 

There is one moment in Baker’s article which at least references paranoid beliefs. But, unfortunately, it is in the context of brushing them aside: “As an activist-whistleblower who has taken on a number of powerful institutions, l can attest that gang-stalking is not just a conspiracy or a byproduct of paranoia. It is a legitimate form of state terrorism that, for a prolonged period of time, can become a form of structural trauma.”

No doubt Baker’s experience is legitimate, and, of course, it is true that state surveillance is a very serious problem, but paranoid delusions are real, too. It is one thing for a sketchy website like to encourage paranoid beliefs; it’s another thing altogether for an outlet like Psychology Today to (even inadvertently) do the same.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco and the host of the podcast Team Futurism. He can be found on X @HeyPeterClarke

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