Online extremism and the digital footprint of mass shooters

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Brooke and Matt Strauss, who were married Sunday, look toward the scene of the mass shooting in downtown Highland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, after leaving their wedding bouquets near the scene of Monday's mass shooting, Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Brooke and Matt Strauss, who were married Sunday, look toward the scene of the mass shooting in downtown Highland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, after leaving their wedding bouquets near the scene of Monday's mass shooting, Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Analysts studying recent mass shootings say there's a previously unrecognized pattern. It begins in the darkest corners of the internet:

"There's a couple overlapping communities. The one I think is maybe most important is what I've kind of just been calling the mass shooter fandom," Emmi Conley, researcher of far-right extremism, digital propaganda cand online communities, says.

"And it's a combination of people who are fans of the original Columbine shooters and just a general love of mass violence."

The young people in these communities build a disorienting world of videos, flashing lights and code words.

"The content is designed to be watched for hours on end, and it is often designed to be watched while under the influence of drugs," Alex Newhouse says. "And the idea is that they want to literally change the way their brain operates."

Law enforcement, lawmakers, and parents have no idea what is happening.

"This is the beginning of a trend. It is going to likely get worse before it gets better, in large part because we're still fighting an uphill battle to educate people on what this is," Alex Newhouse says.

Today, On Point: The online training ground for mass shooters.


Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. (@AlexBNewhouse)

Emmi Conley, researcher of far-right extremism, digital propaganda and online communities.

Interview Highlights

On how these online subcultures originated

Alex Newhouse: "My current understanding, based on my research, is that there are aspects of these communities that have arisen organically over time. And we can trace a lot of the origins of these communities back to, you know, ten, 15 years to, you know, Tumblr boards, for instance, organized around worshiping the Columbine shooter. or 4chan threads that are talking about deep, deep nihilism and a sort of overwhelming desire for nuclear war to happen. Like, these are all things that were happening, you know, during the early days of the Obama administration, if not before.

"So the roots of these things do go back. And from the best that we can understand, have developed fairly organically. But the thing I should mention is that there are elements of this that have been cultivated. And a big portion of my job is actually doing research on what we call militant accelerationists, who are essentially far right terrorists like the Buffalo shooter or like the Christchurch New Zealand shooter, who have some sort of coherent doctrine, some sort of coherent ideology, but still have that form of nihilism. So they're sort of like one step under the types of shooters like Highland Park.

"And what we've seen is that some militant accelerationists are actually engaging with the types of communities and content from which the Highland Park shooter came, for the purpose of trying to exploit them, or just by virtue of their own interest in these types of communities. But there is this sort of interplay going on. Where there are extremists who are trying to exploit it, who are trying to develop it in a certain way. So it really does depend. But there is this sort of foundational aspect of these communities that has arisen by virtue of how the Internet has also developed over time.”

On the online training ground for mass shooters

Alex Newhouse: “It can be a number of different ways that it comes about, being sort of the last thing that someone lights on at the end of this pathway. Emmi already mentioned one of those, which is that it's seen as this sort of like testing the boundaries of where reality has broken down. And to really put yourself through the paces, if you believe yourself, part of this detach from the shared reality, and part of this fiction. You know, mass shooting, committing a mass shooting is almost meaningless in that sort of context.

"But it can also be this sort of this zenith of this buildup within this fiction that you're building for yourself. A lot of these people believe that they are on the verge of becoming legends in this broken down reality space. And as a result, shooting, committing an attack like this can be seen by these people as the ultimate act of like revolting against society, committing some sort of revolutionary act. But also all of that in this context of, you know, this person rejects the shared reality, they reject any sort of shared cultural context, shared community. And this is their revenge on that.”

Who is participating in these online subcultures now?

Alex Newhouse: “In general, I think we can safely say that it's usually adolescence. One of the interesting facets about this, though, is that there is a fairly significant proportion of women, of young women who end up involved in types of communities that are, if not exactly the same, then adjacent to these. So, you know, I mentioned earlier that we have been observing the development of, say, like Columbine worshiping communities on the Internet for about 15 to 20 years now.

"Those communities do often have a significant portion of women alongside men, who are interacting with these, as well. And in the past, there have been attempted attacks when you talk to women who are immersed in Columbine worshiping communities. So for the most part, the types of people who are going to be spun out of these communities and actually commit mass shootings are young adolescent men. But it's still, I think, an open question about, What is the extent of that? What are the proportions? And I think there's a reason to believe that it may be a little bit more diverse than people would otherwise expect.”

Do you think that law enforcement, the FBI, even lawmakers are aware of the existence of these communities and where they lie on the internet?

Emmi Conley: "The fact that the internet is full of violent, hate filled spaces that are constantly pushing out mass shooters is not a novelty. The  details of individual communities that have become more prominent in recent years is important to us as researchers. Or if anybody is hoping to intervene, but largely irrelevant, I think, to policymakers and law enforcement, unless they are attempting to specifically monitor individual communities.

"The problem we have now is that currently our only option for intervention in the United States is law enforcement. And law enforcement can only engage if there is an actionable threat of violence against the individual or others. If a person is, you know, laying out a bunch of red flags, but you can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're planning an attack, there is very little in the way that law enforcement can do for intervention.

At best maybe, you know, take away weapons or hold them in jail for a little while. That'll buy you time. But it doesn't fix the problem. We currently have no kind of accessible mental health intervention or otherwise, where somebody could say, hey, somebody I know has been posting concerning things online, has been behaving differently, is saying things that make me nervous. Could we check in on them? Can we intervene? Is there any way we can we can stop this before it happens? Almost all of our recent shooters have been known to law enforcement ahead of time. It isn't like we aren't catching them. We're just not stopping them.”

On how to understand violent extremism

Emmi Conley: “I think one of the really important things about our understanding of violent extremism is that getting somebody to believe in something ideologically, with the doctrine, with the manifesto, it is a lot of work. It's an investment. You have to get somebody to read something. If you get somebody to buy into it, you have to get them to believe in it, and you have to get them to act on it. And that's a lot of work for a person who's going to end up killed or arrested after they do an act of terror. That's a person you only get to use one time.

"This is a fast track where you don't you don't have to buy in fully to anyone, worldview or even have like an image of the future. You don't have to have a real plan. You just have to separate yourself from reality enough to feel strongly that your actions don't have consequences here, that they don't matter, that they aren't real. And you do them to test the limitations of both yourself and, you know, the reality you have created for yourself, or the one that you've torn down.”

On how to talk to your kids about violet extremism online

Alex Newhouse: “I think one of the main things to keep an eye out for is changes in behavior. It's it seems simple, but if your child is suddenly exhibiting social tendencies or otherwise that seem fairly, you know, incongruous with past behavior, if they suddenly start staying in their room and spending way more time on the computer. And if they start losing touch with in-person friends, that's something to obviously, you know, be not necessarily immediately concerned about, but something to talk about and engage with.

"You know, there's a lot of really amazing advantages to the internet. And I think, you know, Emmi and I probably both share the fact that we spent a lot of time on the internet in our teenage years. And has some really incredible experiences on it, developing friendships and relationships that were healthy. But it is also something, if you see this in your child, if you see them spending more and more time on the internet, if you see them spending time and consuming content that you don't understand, it is something to engage with them on, to start talking with them about.”

Emmi Conley: “Talk to your kids. Stay engaged in the stuff that they're interested in. Say engaged in the stuff that they like. It's really important that you talk to your kids about racism, and hate and violence and let them know that when they see it, they should, you know, talk to someone about it. But mostly just stay engaged with the stuff that your kids are interested in. Even if it's video games, even if it's stuff you don't get, your kids appreciate it. And it's how you catch things before they get bad.”

Related Reading

Logically: "Terrorists Read Your Articles, Too: How To Report On Manifestos" — "In April 1995, the New York Times published a letter ostensibly from a group taking responsibility for the bombings in the case that the FBI had been calling 'UNABOM,' a contraction of 'University and Airline Bomber.'"

This program aired on July 11, 2022.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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