I'm pretty unshockable when it comes to the dark side of the internet; as someone who's been reporting on it since the 1990s I have seen many things I dearly wish I hadn't. So when I say that Netflix's new Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies and The Internet is a tough watch, that's coming from someone with a very strong stomach. The Netflix true crime documentary series is about real people online, and it's scarier than any horror movie.
Over six episodes, the documentary series tells five stories: tales of fraud, of incitement to violence, of conspiracy theories, of sextortion and in the episode I watched last night, how perfectly nice people can end up marching proudly with neo-nazis. While these stories are all very different, the common thread is that they're about terrible people using the power of the internet to prey on others. And that's why it's so tough to watch. So much of what you see on screen is happening not in some corner of the dark web, but on the sites and services you use every day.
Maybe the internet was a mistake
I think Samantha, the subject of the far-right episode, is very brave to go on camera – but I'm glad she did, because her story is so relatable and so much like so many other people's stories. Her episode shows very clearly how decent but vulnerable people can be taken advantage of, how their desire to be liked, to belong, can be twisted into radicalisation against specific groups. As an LGBT+ person that has particular resonance for me: the neo-nazi terror groups in the episode are the same ones that target Pride events and Drag Queen Story Hours in the US; 31 members of one group were arrested this week when their plans to riot at a Pride event in Idaho were uncovered early enough to intercept them.
It goes without saying that there are some deeply upsetting things in these episodes; so much so that I think I'm going to take a break before watching the next one. But while the presentation here can sometimes feel a little too sensationalist, at heart it's an important series that shines a light on something many of us would really rather not think about, and that the sites and services we use would rather pretend isn't happening.