June 30, 2023

In 1944, my grandfather was serving aboard the USS Sealion (SS-315) when it became the first and only Allied submarine to sink an enemy battleship. The operation inadvertently imperilled more than 1,000 British and Australian prisoners of war. My grandfather helped rescue 54 of them, and won honours for doing so. But hundreds of others died, which haunted him. As he wrote in his diary: “Man’s inhumanity to man and yet they will give us medals for this. Doesn’t that beat all?” My grandfather believed he had witnessed the darkest side of humanity. But he died in 1994, before the internet took off.

The online abyss, with its proliferation of the repugnant, the vile and the downright perverse, makes the vast oceans my grandfather navigated appear almost quaint. Still, he grasped what would prove to be an essential truth of the internet: inhumanity is overlooked in the distribution of awards. In our digital era, attention goes to the most shocking, the most outrageous, the most hurtful.

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Like many disaffected young men, I spent a phase of my life drawn to the grimmest corners of the internet, frequenting shock sites such as Ogrish. I would stay up late into the night, the glow of my screen illuminating images of brutal violence, the aftermath of bombings and scenes of torture — much of it related to the various global conflicts occurring in the early 2000s. This was, perhaps, a misguided attempt to understand the depths of human suffering. But does the internet merely reflect our inherent depravity, or does it make it more extreme?

I recently spoke to Monica Garnsey, the executive producer of  a harrowing BBC documentary which some of her colleagues described as among the worst assignments of their careers. These were veteran reporters who had seen the horrors of war zones, yet the subject they were uniquely disturbed by was an online underbelly: a monkey-torturing ring. What bothered them was that, unlike soldiers, or even individuals with abhorrent sexual desires, many who revelled in these gruesome videos displayed an unsettling lack of guilt. These videos showed innocent animals subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the viewer’s request, with other individuals who sought out the clips admitting they also took pleasure in it; for some, it was just a way of “passing the time”. They spoke of it as an intriguing hobby, a release valve for pent-up anger, or even, in some twisted cases, as entertainment. One of the primary sadists recalled stumbling upon a torture video and “chuckling to myself”.

Though much of the actual torture was taking place in Indonesia, the videos were mostly being watched by people in America. Propping up this twisted subculture are “torture-media influencers” — individuals who monetise the abuse of stars like Mini, a monkey whose popularity made her too valuable to kill, despite the complaints of torture aficionados who had grown weary of her starring role. (“Mini is so over,” some would post.)

The business model of these “torture-media influencers” was sickeningly straightforward, selling videos on a pay-per-view basis. But the internet doesn’t actually make it easy to make money; the financial gain was relatively minor. After expenses, even the top purveyors were earning only a few hundred dollars through private sales of more explicit films. There are plenty of easier ways to make that amount of money. These influencers must derive some satisfaction from their work.

The majority of this disturbing content is circulated on platforms such as YouTube, where unsuspecting viewers stumble upon it; it’s a site with resources, and one that most people believe to be relatively well-regulated. Indeed, its content moderators are required to watch anything from acts of suicide and murder to incidents of child abuse. The depraved content that slips through the net is actually only the tip of the iceberg.

The job is known to be traumatic. In 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Facebook and its associated companies alleging that the companies failed to protect their content moderators from the psychological impacts linked to reviewing disturbing images. The case was settled in 2020, with Facebook agreeing to pay $52 million to thousands of American workers. Might it be possible that some derive perverse pleasure from this line of work? Since we know that there are people who pay to watch this content, surely there’s a possibility that some people want to watch it and get paid. Most, though, claim to do it out of necessity. And it’s a growing field of employment, especially in regions where employment opportunities might be scarce.

These content moderators are real-life incarnations of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, a juvenile delinquent “reformed” into utter brokenness through non-stop involuntary exposure to violent films. It reminds me of my grandfather. He joined the military with intentions that were less than noble — to avoid jail time — but what he did, in the name of service, left him psychologically broken. Is the internet as corrupting a force as war: a system that rewards depravity and punishes those charged with maintaining order?

Mike McCartney, a former gang member now known as the “Torture King”, is an incontrovertible piece of evidence that the internet actually inspires abuse. He knew nothing about monkey torture until he stumbled upon a video on YouTube. He found it amusing. And it served as a gateway drug. The very worst monkey torture content is shared on private, and therefore unmoderated, channels. The Torture King sought out out likeminded people on Telegram, where the abuse is both normalised and escalated to unimaginable levels, with members conspiring and voting on cruel methods of torture. He started selling and trading torture videos, deriving a meagre profit, starkly disproportionate to the risks he took, including a potential seven-year prison sentence.

In some ways, this is an extreme case of a broader pattern, whereby people pursue validation and clout on social media at any cost, even when it involves catering to their basest impulses. The founder of Ape’s Cage, known as Mr Ape, told the BBC investigation that he felt affection for the monkeys, particularly Mini, whom he hoped would make it out of the ordeal alive (she did). Like several other torture fans, he even justified his actions by claiming he was trying to expose others involved in the trade. Perhaps he was just trying to avoid the consequences of his actions, but he wouldn’t be the first man to profess one set of beliefs when alone and online, and quite another when offline and in the company of others. The internet encourages psychological compartmentalisation, as well as the feeling that you can escape reality. But let us be clear: these depraved men were the instigators, not the liberators.

Can anyone take them on? Earlier this month, Meta, the conglomerate that owns Facebook and Instagram, established a task force dedicated to curbing the distribution and sale of child sexual abuse material on its platforms — a problem further exacerbated by ceaseless improvements in deepfake technology. This move was a response to a damning report by the Stanford Internet Observatory that unveiled a network of accounts peddling self-generated explicit material, primarily through Instagram’s direct messaging feature. A key point in the researchers’ findings was that the site was enabling buyers and sellers to find each other, thanks to the effectiveness of its algorithm.

But are these sites giving people what they want, or making people want it? Perhaps it’s both. They are designed to keep users hooked because that’s their business model. They promote and amplify our darkest desires; they whet our appetite for more. TikTok has, for instance, faced criticism for contributing to the radicalisation of individuals by leading them down conspiracy theory rabbit holes.

And this then has resonance in the real world. What we see on the internet can directly impact our faith in reality — in other people. As an insider from the BBC documentary expressed: “What you realise is that anyone — the person in front of you in line, the person next to you on the street — could be a monkey torturer.” In a society where trust is already fragile, the danger is profound: bombard us with the worst aspects of human nature, and we view each other as suspects. We retreat into isolation, further eroding our faith in others. In other words the internet, in feeding our darkest desires, fans the flames of societal fragmentation.

The omnipresence of depravity has other consequences. It can numb us; or it can inspire a terrible guilt, akin to my grandfather’s, about our inability to prevent inhumanity. It leads to dehumanisation, and political apathy: if humans are terrible, what’s the point of trying to make society better?

But perhaps we can draw comfort from the fact that, while depravity generates a lot of views, so too does the fight against it. The BBC investigation into monkey torture is, in many ways, a successor to NBC’s television programme To Catch a Predator, affectionately known as TCAP. In the early days of social media, the show capitalised on the commonality of child predators, setting up intricate traps to catch these maladjusted individuals in the act. It was immensely popular. The programme paraded the perverts before the public eye, drawing attention to the staggering number lurking online. It featured the shy and morbidly obese Peter Sciacca, who went by the username “Don Ceech” and met his lonely demise in 2021 after serving time in prison. The trouble is, this sort of voyeurism is also problematic. Was Sciacca vulnerable? Marginalised? Exploited by the internet, just as he used it to exploit others? Exploited by the TV show, which turned his emptiness and alienation into a spectacle for others to consume, deepening his isolation, escalating their propensity for depravity?

We do have to take some responsiblity. The internet is, after all, a reflection of us — a mirror to our collective consciousness. But that digital mirror also allows us to detach consequences from action and to leave empathy behind. And it is this, arguably, that poses a far greater threat to our societal fabric than the individual acts of depravity. So even as those sickos are brought to justice, we ought to ask ourselves: what would we do, if we thought we could get away with it?