Late last week, a rumor both disturbing and riveting began circling forums like 4chan and Reddit. A mysterious group claimed to have captured several Islamic State fighters — and promised to torture and kill them live on the Dark Web.
The excitement was instant — if nervous — amidst the forum-goers who planned to tune in. In dozens of threads on 4chan and in Reddit’s r/darkweb and r/tor forums, they counted down to the stream’s appointed start time and chronicled its every technical glitch. But reading through their posts, one gets the sense that most were less interested in gore than in the final, long-denied proof that a “deeper” Dark Web actually exists.
They wanted to witness one of the Internet’s most stubborn urban legends for themselves: The myth that, if you dig deep and long enough, you will find the furthest reaches of human depravity — torture, murder, terrorism, you name it — on the Dark Web.
“I don’t think what they do is good,” one Redditor in r/onions recently commented, “I just want to see it for myself.”
For those of you asking why the morbidly curious don’t simply Google it, let’s begin with a 101-level explainer of what the Dark Web is. At the most basic, technical level, we’re talking about a relatively small collection of Web sites that (a) are not indexed by search engines and (b) use anonymity tools like Tor to hide their IP addresses.
To access the Dark Web, you’ll need to use a browser like Tor. But once you’re there, it may be difficult to determine who or what else is on the network — that’s kind of what the whole thing is for. In fact, that property has made the Dark Web really popular with people who want to keep their identities a secret, like child pornographers and drug dealers.
Both of these activities are, of course, illegal. And in the case of child porn, they can be horrifyingly depraved. But there’s still this impression, especially common among beginning or casual Dark Web explorers, that the Dark Web gets worse or goes “deeper.” After all, this is a place where people all over the world can gather in unindexed anonymity to share anything they want: If 4chan, a site on the public Web, can persuade a user to cut half his toe off, then surely the Dark Web has far crazier, horror-film stuff.
There are rumors of gladiator fights, in which real people battle to the death; there’s talk of deranged, Nazi-era “human experiments,” filmed and uploaded. Legend has it that you can buy a hitman, if you know where to look, or a slave, or something called a “living doll” — a nightmare concoction so grotesque that I’d encourage you not to Google it further.
Of all the Dark Web legends, though, the “red room” is one of the most stubborn: Somewhere on the Dark Web, it claims, there are people broadcasting live, interactive rapes and murders. In fact, on Reddit and 4chan and Hidden Wiki, a kind of CliffNotes for Dark Web beginners, you can find people trading second- and third- and fourth-hand accounts of red rooms opened and closed.
“It’s a tediously common question,” writes Eileen Ormsby, the Australian journalist behind the Dark Web news site All Things Vice. “How can I go deeper in the deep web? Where’s the really dark stuff?”
The answer, she writes, is pretty simple: The “dark stuff” does not and never has existed. (The exception is child porn, but that’s generally not what “deeper Web” people are looking for.)
There’s a multitude of evidence to back Ormsby’s claim: chief among it, the fact that there is never actually first-hand evidence of “red rooms,” hitmen and their ilk, and that such operations have never been busted in the FBI’s increasingly frequent Dark Web raids. Horrors reported in the media often turn out to be fake, just creepypasta that’s migrated off its original page.
Perhaps most convincingly, when a British “crypto enthusiast” who goes by the name Cthulhu analyzed a handful of hacker- and hitman-for-hire sites earlier this year, he found that their servers were set up with no real concern for security — something you’d expect to be really important to someone vending highly illegal services on an anonymous network.
More likely, he concluded, these sites were all scams: meant to collect huge sums for their murderous services, and then never actually go through with them.
So it was with the ISIS Red Room, predictably. After all that hype, the site was mysteriously taken offline at the very moment the torture was schedule to start, replaced — hours later — with a page that thanked participants. A 21-minute video of the “torture,” later published on YouTube and Liveleak, shows a guy — a “suspiciously pale-skinned guy,” Ormsby notes — being force-fed bacon.
The site was later replaced with a notice that it had been seized as part of a “joint law enforcement operation”; a copycat site, launched over the weekend, has likewise failed to kill or torture anyone.
None of this means, of course, that there isn’t a whole lot of deeply disturbing, exploitative and/or illegal content on the Dark Web; in his recent book on the subject, Jamie Bartlett chronicles tales of — among other things — suicide, child porn, drug trading, white supremacy and harassment. But those are, unfortunately, things you can also find on the open Internet. By and large, it would seem, the Dark Web doesn’t go much “deeper” than that.
“Are red rooms real?” asked one frustrated Redditor. “I read about this subject, but I found no evidence … It seems like a legend, not something that really happens.”
Perhaps the better question is why so many people are fascinated by these grotesque urban legends — let alone driven to seek them out. That, alas, is something philosophers and psychologists are still arguing about.
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