YBOP and its late creator Gary Wilson have been long targeted with various deplatforming attempts and extensive defamation. A new journal article examines the 2019 “Mormon porn” smear campaign. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Since Gary Wilson first created Your Brain on Porn in 2010, it provided a refreshing evidence-based perspective on the emergence of unfettered overuse of Internet-based pornography. Wilson assembled an unparalleled catalog of knowledge about online pornography’s effects, including exhaustive listings of peer-reviewed research on its effects, other studies on related topics such as gambling and Internet overuse, news articles about porn addiction, and personal accounts from people who experimented with quitting porn.
However, the existence of YBOP was met with staunch opposition by activists, including those who collaborate with the lucrative pornography industry. Actions taken by industry-aligned actors include vexatious legal threats, frivolous DMCA takedown requests, an attempt to trademark YBOP’s URL, cyberbullying, false law enforcement reports, extensive defamation, Wikipedia astroturfing, and much, much more. However, one incident in 2019 stands out among the myriad attempts to suppress YBOP’s evidence-based documentation on the science of pornography use. In that year, industry-aligned activists made false claims that YBOP’s Gary Wilson was secretly amassing a collection of Latter-day Saint-themed pornography on his website!
Darryl Mead of The Reward Foundation documents this “Mormon Porn” incident in a case study recently published in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago. See selected excerpts from the paper below. Alternatively, you may read the article for yourself because it’s “Open Access” (that is, available for all, free of charge) at First Monday.
Creating disinformation: Archiving fake links on the Wayback Machine viewed through the lens of routine activity theory
This case study uses routine activity theory to contextualise the method used by an external bad actor to create fake links within the Internet Archive for the Web site Yourbrainonporn.com. It then discusses the social media campaign which occurred two years later using screenshots of these fake links accessed via the Wayback Machine to defame the site owner. An organised disinformation campaign on social media began attacking the site owner of Yourbrainonporn.com (a pornography recovery Web site) for allegedly, accidentally, posting evidence on his own site of him searching for and hosting hardcore pornography. In fact, the list of purportedly incriminating links did not point to any content, but the defamers’ intentions seemed to have always been to set up a smear campaign against a particular site and its author. Options are discussed for the Internet Archive to provide improved guardianship and to educate the public to minimise harm from this type of social media attack based on screenshots of fake URLs.
Shortly after the arrival of the smart phone in 2007, a new movement of voices questioning the desirability of pornography consumption appeared from consumers themselves. In setting up the Yourbrainonporn.com Web site in 2010, Gary Wilson (1956–2021) became a leader in documenting research on physical health and mental well-being issues which accompanied unlimited access to free, streaming Internet pornography. As Yourbrainonporn.com began to build a substantial user base, it moved onto the radar of pornography industry supporters, and other individuals who wished to suppress or otherwise undermine the research and health-based messages propagated by Mr. Wilson. From 2013, Gary Wilson became a suitable target, both as a person and as a Web site. Over a period of eight years Wilson was subject to a wide, varied and sustained range of aggression from pornography industry associates and supporters. These included false reports to law enforcement agencies, unfounded accusations of academic misconduct, social media attacks, trademark and copyright infringements, a baseless restraining order request (which a judge promptly dismissed; the request had been filed by one involved in the Internet Archive attack), and a variety of de-platforming attempts (Yourbrainonporn.com, 2021d).
This paper focuses on an unusual and sophisticated attack of a type that has not been previously reported in the literature. Mr. Wilson’s importance and significance as an industry suitable target is emphasised by the fact that multiple individuals worked over a period of years in an attempt to fundamentally undermine his credibility. The attack was an attempt to reduce the impact that Mr. Wilson was having in illuminating research on the physical and mental health implications of consumers interacting with the pornographic industry’s products.
3.1. The target Web site
The target site of the disinformation campaign was https://yourbrainonporn.com. It was created in 2010 by author Gary Wilson, who had taught anatomy, physiology and pathology for many years at vocational schools, as well as anatomy and physiology labs at Southern Oregon University (Cowell, 2013).
The Web site mapped out the interaction between consumption of pornography from the Internet and its possible effects on physical and mental health. This was done by reference to academic research and through reports of users and former users of pornography. By the time of Mr. Wilson’s death in May 2021, the site had grown to more than 12,000 pages and cited over 900 peer-reviewed studies. It attracts a wide audience, currently receiving about 4.75 million users per year, for a global traffic ranking of #32,880 (SimilarWeb, 2022a). As public visibility of the site rose, its creator became a target of sustained personal and academic attacks from individuals who did not agree with Wilson’s evidence-based approach revealing the risks of Internet pornography use. The apparent campaign documented in this study can be seen in the context of a much wider programme of pushback against many organisations and individuals who suggest that there are potential risks associated with the use of digital pornography.
Gary Wilson became a suitable target for pushback, receiving attacks from many angles in a sustained and complex campaign to undermine his credibility (Hess, 2022). This included branding him a “pseudoscientist” and falsely accusing him of a wide range of antisocial behaviours ranging from stalking to academic misrepresentation. As a defensive tactic, Mr. Wilson began to document comprehensively many of the attacks on Yourbrainonporn.com (Yourbrainonporn.com, 2021a). Gary Wilson’s status as a suitable target for a pornography-industry-connected actor was further demonstrated by his subsequent success in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on 6 August 2020, which ruled in his favour. The judge determined that a baseless legal filing targeting Wilson was a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) (Yourbrainonporn.com, 2020).
In addition to creating Yourbrainonporn.com, in 2012 Gary Wilson gave a TEDx talk in Glasgow, Scotland, called “The great porn experiment” (Wilson, 2012) which at the time of writing had been viewed over 16 million times on YouTube. Building upon this effort, in 2014 Wilson wrote a popular book (Wilson, 2014) and in 2016 he authored a peer-reviewed paper, recommending more research on pornography use (Wilson, 2016).
Also in 2016, Wilson co-authored with seven U.S. Navy doctors another peer-reviewed paper in this field. This paper, Park, et al. (2016) has been widely cited in the academic literature (Scopus lists 86 citations, Web of Science 69 and Google Scholar 234). There had been over 180,800 full text views as of 24 January 2023. Behavioral Sciences lists this as the most viewed paper of all of the 1,626 papers that it has published since the journal was founded in 1996 (MDPI, 2023). However, this success was achieved in the face of sustained efforts by an individual reviewer who attempted to suppress the paper and its authors in a wide range of ways, including repeatedly contacting the Committee on Publication Ethics demanding its retraction and reporting six of the Navy doctors who co-authored it to their medical boards for professional malpractice. The journal’s publisher MDPI resisted these attacks, and subsequently published a small correction where the only material change was to remove the academic editor’s name from the paper (Park, et al., 2018). The same individual who attempted to block Wilson’s paper was a primary individual propagating a social media defamation campaign described in this paper.
3.2.1. Why was the theme of ‘Mormon porn’ chosen as the subject of the Wayback Machine attack
I believe it is likely that the attackers carefully chose the concept of ‘Mormon pornography’ for the URLs that were screenshot from the Wayback Machine because of its potential for a very high negative impact on Gary Wilson’s reputation, if people believed the campaign to be based on truth. While the field of people opposing unrestricted use of pornography is diverse, some leaders and activists within organisations have a strong religious faith, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People within this Church are also often referred to as “Mormons” in popular culture (Weaver, 2018). By contrast, the late Gary Wilson had been an atheist all his life (West, 2018). Creating disinformation that linked Wilson’s purported salacious behaviour to the Latter-day Saint religious faith and practices would potentially be divisive, and perhaps even introduce an element of apparent religious hate speech into Mr. Wilson’s health-focused information service.
“Mormon pornography” is an existing genre, with its own page in Wikipedia (Wikipedia.org, 2021a). An unfiltered Google search for the same term in November 2021 returned just over 9,000 results, along with a warning that “some results may be explicit” (Google.co.uk, 2021). By portraying Wilson as a consumer or purveyor of Mormon porn, the attackers could have believed that such a revelation might have sown distrust and undermined his credibility within the pornography-harm-awareness community.
Themes in the fake links targeted many elements central to the Latter-day Saint faith or culture, including families, motherhood and the Church itself. The fake links included 61 unique URLs incorporating the word ‘Mormon’ as well as references to Utah, the U.S. state with the largest Latter-day Saint population, and to Brigham Young University, the world’s largest LDS-affiliated academic institution. The use of the word ‘Mormon’ itself, rather than ‘LDS’ or other phrases, appears to be controversial within the Latter-day Saint community (Weaver, 2018).
3.2.3. Generating the social media storm
This study is based around an incident which began with the creation of fake links in 2016 and evolved into a full-scale disinformation campaign in 2019. It began with a tweet from the currently-suspended @BrainOnPorn Twitter account associated with the imposter, trademark-infringing Web site RealYourBrainOnPorn.com. The attacker’s Twitter (X) account and a corresponding press release were initially promoted by Pornhub, one of the world’s most popular pornography Web sites (SimilarWeb.com, 2022b).
One thing immediately stands out: the image in Figure D3 showing the tweet that launched the incident depicts the Wayback Machine record of Yourbrainonporn.com. It shows the list of URLs captured. However, the Wayback Machine’s procedure also involves saving a snapshot of a Web site’s HTML and assets (including images) at the URLs that it captures. This detail is crucial. The tweet thread features only a screenshot of the URL list; it does not include any screenshots or links to the implied page content. Nor does it include a URL of the address from which the screenshot was taken (https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://yourbrainonporn.com/*).
Another thing that stands out is that all of the suspect URLs that the Wayback Machine crawled go to “404 Page Not Found” (e.g., https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.yourbrainonporn.com//hot-blonde-mormon-feet/). There are at most two or three attempts to crawl each page it before it appears that the Wayback Machine decides that it’s a non-existent URL and terminates the collection process.
[Discussion of the Twitter account associated with RealYourBrainOnPorn.com]
Twitter later disabled the @BrainOnPorn account after it posted personal information about Wilson himself (including his residential address) and members of Wilson’s family (including photographs and financial information). However, the account operator(s) appeared to have created another new Twitter account, @ScienceOfPorn in March 2021. This account subsequently posted negative comments about Gary Wilson in October 2021 (ScienceOfPorn 2021). The corresponding Web site connected to the @BrainOnPorn Twitter handle, RealYourBrainOnPorn.com, was transferred to Gary Wilson as part of a legal settlement after a trademark infringement dispute (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 2019).
Routine activity theory provides a helpful framework for conceptualizing the roles of the motivated offenders, suitable targets and capable guardians in this case study. While motivated offenders remain only vaguely visible, Gary Wilson’s status as a suitable target was confirmed. The need for the Internet Archive to conceive itself as delivering the role of the capable guardian has also been suggested.
The Internet Archive’s credibility can be co-opted to manufacture legitimacy for false and/or misleading claims using simple techniques available to anyone online. There are ways to mitigate and prevent this kind of abuse without sacrificing the transparency or openness of the Internet Archive. Complete solutions require both technical and educational components. However, most of these mitigations can only be effectively implemented by the Internet Archive itself. Victims of this kind of attack are left with limited options on their own.
Within the ingestion mechanism of the Wayback Machine, there is scope for the identification of ‘//’ or similar suspect elements within URLs. This identification could be used to create software features to flag this type of potentially fake link. Ideally they should be flagged as 404 errors.