The Internet Ruined My Life Will Make You Rethink Your Next Tweet

Image: SyFy.
"Once something goes viral online, it can't be stopped."

Those are the first words of the inaugural episode of The Internet Ruined My Life, a new Syfy series about — well, I bet you can guess. The show, which premiered on March 9, chronicles how one wrong move online can cost you big time, be it your privacy, your travel visa, your personal safety, and even your sanity.

You've heard these sorts of stories before. They're nearly as old as social media itself, often gendered in nature, and freaky because — hey — they really could happen to anyone. And while the series is a little on the cheesy side (think dramatized reenactments and text message bubbles popping up across the screen) it also serves as a reminder that what you say and do online really can bleed over into real life. And sometimes, it becomes a total nightmare.

Take, for example, the story of Suey Park, the very first person chronicled on TIRML. Park was a rising activist who regularly spoke out against pejorative stereotyping of Asian Americans in popular culture. Her audience — and influence — was on the rise when she created the hashtag #CancelColbert, after the host performed a segment that cast Asian people in a negative light.

"I was trying to think of something catchy and over the top," she tells the show's camera, emphasizing that she knew that Colbert was being satirical, and that she didn't actually want his show canceled. But the hashtag — and Park's intentions for it — quickly got hijacked. She was misquoted as saying white men aren’t allowed to have an opinion. Everything snowballed from there.

Park ceased to feel safe in her home; she was stalked; people tried to hack into her accounts. She stopped leaving the house, and developed symptoms that sound remarkably similar to PTSD. She also lost her livelihood, as up until that point she'd been making her living as an advocate for Asian-American representation. "I felt like my voice had been taken away," she tells the camera.

It's scary, the idea that passing comments on Twitter could become an on-the-record indication of who you are as a human being — of what threat you pose to the rest of the world.

While on one hand, I rolled my eyes a little at Park's decision to create a hyperbolic hashtag that she knew would garner attention, even if she wasn't fully behind it. It was a bold PR move — but it was also motivated by clearly articulated reasoning about racism and how Colbert was punching down in this particular instance. My annoyance faded away as a I watched the way this young woman was picked apart by not only angry men on the internet, but also by a Huffington Post Live journalist who patronized her and called her perspective into question on-air.

The second half of the episode deals with Leigh Van Bryan, who is arguably less sympathetic a victim than Suey Park. Bryan was planning a trip to Los Angeles from his native England when he fired off two tweets that apparently piqued the attention of United States Homeland Security.

"Three weeks today, we’re totally on Hollywood Boulevard, pissing people off, and digging up Marilyn Monroe," he wrote to his few thousand followers. "Are you free this week for a gossip/prep, before I go destroy America?" he added in a later tweet.

Admittedly, not a great thing to have written before you hop on a plane to another country. But in Bryan's defense, he was just bullshitting about the Marilyn Monroe thing, and "destroy" has a different connotation overseas than it does on this side of the pond. (He defined it to mean "party hard," essentially.)

Bryan, who was traveling with a female friend, was apprehended by security as soon as he landed at LAX. Their suitcases were raided. They were interrogated for hours before being transferred to jail cells overnight; their visas were immediately revoked, making the pair "illegal immigrants" in America; they were ultimately deported and sent back to England — nearly two days after their original flight landed. (And they aren't allowed back, by the way.)

Watching Bryan's story especially, I began thinking about all the tweets I've fired off without a thought — particularly the most nonsense ones that could easily be misinterpreted or blown out of proportion. It's scary, the idea that passing comments on Twitter could become an on-the-record indication of who you are as a human being — of what threat you pose to the rest of the world. Frighteningly enough, being active online really does have the power to ruin your real life.

And yet. While I am deeply concerned about censorship and freedom of speech online (not to mention the implications of Bryan's arrest and subsequent deportation all because of a tweet) I also believe that with great opportunity — in this case, the opportunity to have your voice be heard — comes great responsibility. Even on Twitter. We're all citizens of the internet these days, a virtual reality locale that is becoming ever more real. And a certain part of participating is acknowledging the rules of the game — and the social contract you enter into when you play it.

The Internet Ruined My Life
airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST on Syfy.

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