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Linguistic Analysis of Online Communication About a Novel Persecutory Belief System (Gangstalking): Mixed Methods Study

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

Article numbere25722
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>5/03/2021
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number3
Number of pages10
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Background: Gangstalking is a novel persecutory belief system whereby those affected believe they are being followed, stalked, and harassed by a large number of people, often numbering in the thousands. The harassment is experienced as an accretion of innumerable individually benign acts such as people clearing their throat, muttering under their breath, or giving dirty looks as they pass on the street. Individuals affected by this belief system congregate in online fora to seek support, share experiences, and interact with other like-minded individuals. Such people identify themselves as targeted individuals.

Objective: The objective of the study was to characterize the linguistic and rhetorical practices used by contributors to the gangstalking forum to construct, develop, and contest the gangstalking belief system.

Methods: This mixed methods study employed corpus linguistics, which involves using computational techniques to examine recurring linguistic patterns in large, digitized bodies of authentic language data. Discourse analysis is an approach to text analysis which focuses on the ways in which linguistic choices made by text creators contribute to particular functions and representations. We assembled a 225,000-word corpus of postings on a gangstalking support forum. We analyzed these data using keyword analysis, collocation analysis, and manual examination of concordances to identify discursive and rhetorical practices among self-identified targeted individuals.

Results: The gangstalking forum served as a site of discursive contest between 2 opposing worldviews. One is that gangstalking is a widespread, insidious, and centrally coordinated system of persecution employing community members, figures of authority, and state actors. This was the dominant discourse in the study corpus. The opposing view is a medicalized discourse supporting gangstalking as a form of mental disorder. Contributors used linguistic practices such as presupposition, nominalization, and the use of specialized jargon to construct gangstalking as real and external to the individual affected. Although contributors generally rejected the notion that they were affected by mental disorder, in some instances, they did label others in the forum as impacted/affected by mental illness if their accounts if their accounts were deemed to be too extreme or bizarre. Those affected demonstrated a concern with accumulating evidence to prove their position to incredulous others.

Conclusions: The study found that contributors to the study corpus accomplished a number of tasks. They used linguistic practices to co-construct an internally coherent and systematized persecutory belief system. They advanced a position that gangstalking is real and contested the medicalizing discourse that gangstalking is a form of mental disorder. They supported one another by sharing similar experiences and providing encouragement and advice. Finally, they commiserated over the challenges of proving the existence of gangstalking.