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Devil On The Web and Web Of Make Believe: two takes on cybercrime

Devil On The Web and Web Of Make Believe: two takes on cybercrime
(Netflix)

The crime // You name it, really: fraud, swatting, involuntary manslaughter, trafficking, insurrection…

The story // I have a handful of snarky tags at Exhibit B., including this one: “internet peril.” “Internet peril” books tend to come from the nineties; feature hilariously dated cover designs (think glowing green WarGames fonts) and hysterical overuse of the “cyber-” prefix; and strongly imply — as did early seasons of Law & Order: SVU, not for nothing — that literally everyone on the internet is either a child predator or a hacker.

Calm down, marketing department. (A&E)

As the internet evolved into a daily presence in our lives, coverage of cybercrime evolved too. Well…most coverage of cybercrime.

Books and longreads about love-fraud stings or NFT cons feel a lot less like transcripts of grimly clueless social-hygiene films than they used to. Shows and docuseries about real crime in virtual spaces?

Much more mixed a bag, as I found out when I screened two from 2022, A&E’s Devil In The Web and Netflix’s Web Of Make Believe.

Both limited series have bad titles — corny, outmoded, and in one case probably trying to draft off some satanic-panic brand confusion — but neither series is bad per se. It comes down to what you can predict you’ll get from the respective networks’ product.

Devil does raise a few interesting questions here and there: how a victim who relies on public, personal marketing in their job can manage a stalker; how to give law enforcement tools to protect targets of stalking that won’t then get used improperly (not least by, you know, cops who are themselves stalkers); how to keep online spaces safe for introverted kids (or grownups!) who find community there.

But A&E is a deeply conventional and pro-law-enforcement network, so in addition to filler-y animations and first-draft production design, you’ll also get talking-head interviews that allow various cops to position themselves as heroes, and uninterrogated assertions about the stranger-dangers of Discord.

Again, it has a handful of thought-provoking moments (and, in Episode 4, a teenager who maybe shouldn’t have been allowed on-camera, but has a natural charisma and an easy way with exposition, so it’s not like the world needs more CrimeTok channels, but I would watch Kimberly’s for real).

It’s not as histrionic as it could be, but it feels reverse-engineered from what network executives thought boomers watching Devil in waiting rooms might feel anxious about.

Texts among the swatting team after Andy Finch was killed. (Netflix)

Web Of Make Believe is less predictable in its rhythms, and far less willing to accept cops’ version of a given case — if it solicits that version at all. I’ve only watched two episodes, but the first, on an infamous swatting gone wrong in Wichita, spends a significant portion of its runtime wondering why the cop who actually fired the shot that killed Andy Finch didn’t see so much as a suspension.

Not that Web is on the side of hacker Tyler Barriss, either, with an off-camera producer asking withering questions about Barriss’s prior, and myriad, fake bomb threats and his cavalier attitude towards Finch’s demise, but the A&E version of that story lets prosecutors lift a big W for putting Barriss and others behind bars. Web isn’t about that.

(Netflix)

Series creator and director Brian Knappenberger is familiar with the subgenre’s terrain, having directed The Internet’s Own Boy — as well as The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. One of the things I liked about the latter when I reviewed it for Primetimer was that it didn’t necessarily have all the answers, but understood the importance of asking the questions. The same is true in Web, not just with Andy Finch’s story but in a later episode focusing on white-supremacist rhetoric, misinformation, and organizing.

A former “women’s coordinator” at white-nationalist org Identity Evropa helps take viewers into the mindset of a rising star in a hate group, while other interviewees talk about the “political calculation” of ignoring certain evident domestic-terrorism threats.

It’s grim, vile, and infuriating, much like Gabriel Fernandez, but Knappenberger doesn’t push us towards a single sound-bited view of “Samantha,” or let the audience pretend that, if we think we understand how “this” happened with her, we can stop worrying about it happening again.

It’s not cheery stuff, but I do recommend it, because in a strange way, it’s a more hopeful document than Devil — not in anything it covers (or uncovers), but because a series like it exists, one that doesn’t work backward from a fear-driven conclusion but just gathers information, even the ugliest information.

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Happy discussing!

Tracy

Saturday 27th of January 2024

Just to add to the catalog of cringeworthy '90s internet movies, I recently watched *Cyberstalker*, and the best thing I can say about it is it provides further proof that no matter how ridiculous the plot of a film, if you cast Jeffrey Combs he will show up and ACT.

Sarah D. Bunting

Monday 29th of January 2024

I think the real mystery here is why you were watching that ;)

Margaret

Saturday 27th of January 2024

Just calling it "the web" is so old timey!

Sarah D. Bunting

Saturday 27th of January 2024

ikr? "Lycos, go get it!"

Claire Pancerz

Friday 26th of January 2024

I have watched all the episodes of Web of Make Believe, and recommended it recently to a friend who is the mother of a rising-in-school-popularity tween. I, for the millionth time, cannot imagine what it would be like to raise a child in an age of social media. For the jillionth time, I am also deeply grateful this did not exist when I grew up. Slam books were bad enough, and when I tell you I can still see the comments in the book under my name, that lives only in my memory. No shots fired, no photos shared, no threats made. Our laws clearly have not kept pace with the social media environment and I don’t know how to safely restrict usage that would ease domestic terrorism, or using the internet to punish people we don’t like.

Sarah D. Bunting

Friday 26th of January 2024

One former FBI agent says as much re: the laws not keeping pace in Episode 3. I think he said the Bureau didn't have email until the year 2000.