5 Ways The Modern World Makes Mass Murder Easier
OK, Christ, let's get one thing clear here: The internet isn't a bad thing. At no point will the world become a cartoonist's caricature of some smoldering dumpland surrounding a cow pen of millennials checking their smartphones. I get that no one under the age of 70 wants to hear some hand-flailing diatribe about the dangers of modern conveniences or how video games and Twitter turn supple minds into itty Patrick Batemans (Batemen?). It's horse poop.
But also horse poop: pretending that society has lurched into a tubular hack-the-planet age without any detrimental consequences. And one correlation that's always troubled me is the FBI's report about the rise of spree shootings adjacent to the rise in the web's popularity. While it would be horribly irresponsible to use that data alone to point fingers at the world's favorite new cat and porn depository, there's certainly enough circumstantial evidence to at least support suspicious squints toward your cable router. For example ...
The Internet Attracts Depressed, Emotionless People (According To Science)
Like I just got done saying, the internet isn't turning people into psychopaths, just as video games and movies aren't. But to quote the great modern mind Skeet Ulrich: "Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative." In other words, troubled people can draw inspiration and solace from anywhere, and science has found that one common place to hide has been the internet.
If a person tends to be introverted, or isolated, or generally uncomfortable dealing with other people (like I'm sure a lot of you reading this are), then the internet is a great place to find peace. There's nothing wrong with that. But it also means that the more rejected from the world a person feels, the easier it it for them to live their life solely through a computer screen. And while we've only just begun to study the effects of this, what little results we have seem to indicate that excessive online use tends to go hand in hand with addiction, depression, impulsiveness, and anxiety. Getting more specific, things like online forums and file sharing tend to attract those with depressive personalities. In other words, you don't have to be an isolated, depressed loner to enjoy 4chan and Reddit ... but it helps.
And going back to the fact that these websites absolutely don't turn you into a sociopath, they are fan-fucking-tastic if you're already one of those to begin with. Forums and Twitter are great ways to pass the time if you have no empathy, considering how impersonal they can be. And you know who tends to fit into that? Teenagers. Specifically, teenage boys.
"Cognitive empathy" -- aka the ability to relate to other people's perspectives -- is not something that develops right away in people. For girls, it happens around the age of 13, but for boys it tends to start a bit later ... right around the time they become parentally untethered online. And while I'm totally speculating, it makes way more sense to me that the reason so many spree killers are young men isn't that men are inherently terrible crime monsters, but that they are biologically more susceptible to violent actions in an age in which you can escape into a faceless digital world. After all, I remember being that age when the internet first became a thing (I'm fucking old, you guys), and can personally attest to the hours I spent on sites like rotten.com and Limewire seeing just how much my adolescent brain could take. That doesn't mean I'm a psychopath, right? Right, guys? We wouldn't want that.
And since my early days, it's gotten easier to find not only just about any corner of darkness you want, but also a whole digital community lurking there with you ...
Online Communities Make Unhealthy Interests Seem Normal
Hey, let's say I'm really into pictures of cars having sex with dragons. Hypothetically, of course. Let's say it really gets my hammer slamming to see a Toyota Matrix squat behind some nubile hydra and give it the full business. Twenty years ago, that's something I would have to keep to myself, quietly understanding that it's kind of messed up I would be into such things. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to hope I wouldn't be ashamed of my vehicular fetish, but it's certainly nothing I could build a whole lifestyle around. With luck, one day I might meet a woman who shared my dark secret, and together we could dress up like Herbie and Draco and go buck wild on each other. Just a honking good time.
But today, I don't have to worry about any of that. There's already a Reddit community of over 3,000 people who share my interest:
NSFW, by the way. It may all be a big joke, but you will still see a dragon getting railed by a firetruck.
I know, I know, it's a joke subreddit. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The point I'm trying to make here is this: One of the strengths of the internet is that it unites people from all over the country and world ... which at times is also one of the worst things about it as well. Because along with political advocates, LGBT groups, nerd communities, people who drink beer in the shower while naked (hey, NSFW), and any other innocuous lifestyles like cosplayers and furries, we're also seeing the garbage unions of Nazis, child predators, animal abusers, weird-shaped egg enthusiasts, and a fucking 2,000-strong group devoted to Taylor Swift's armpits:
Which somehow forced the dragon-fucking out of top spot on the "weirdest fetish in this article" list.
This is something we've talked about before with online MRA groups. In the same way that a cult isolates and bubbles people into a false interpretation of reality, some online groups find the equally susceptible and gather them under one obsessive interest. And to keep repeating, it's not that the internet is making them this way, but rather that it's creating a nurturing place where those beliefs can be not only unchallenged but supported. Someone like an anti-vaxxer or Sandy Hook truther would be booed out of an everyday conversation, but online, they are not alone. Online, they have a community to assure them that what they are doing isn't bat-dong wacky-sacks.
And then it's only a matter of time before that person grows to believe that the rest of the world is the problem. Their awkwardness, isolation, and social anxiety is suddenly a justified reaction to a backwards society. It's only a matter of time before they proudly lash out against the non-digital world, and what was once a quiet hobby becomes some dude fucking a neighbor's Tegu dressed like a Transformer. Or, you know, a man shooting up Planned Parenthood after enveloping himself in anti-abortion YouTube videos edited to falsely assert that the organization sells baby parts.
And I know that it seems super weird to lump violence with joke subreddits about celebrity arm fetishes, but there's a deliberate reason I'm doing this ...
For Every Stupid Offensive "Joke," There's Someone Out There Taking It Seriously
Lemme tell you about being a young punk in the very liberal state of Massachusetts, which is what I once was. In order to rebel in a place like that, the goal was to be as offensive and politically incorrect as possible. And so derogatory bands like GG Allin, GWAR, and something terrible called "Anal Cunt" were often blasted with a smirk from my shitty car. It wasn't necessarily that I believed the screeching lyrics, but rather that I enjoyed the immature shock value of it all. And while a lot of these bands were also simply in it for smirks, there comes a time when you realize that not everyone is interpreting them ironically. At some point, you find yourself moshing to a live performance of "Hitler Was A Sensitive Man," only to notice that the dude next to you has a swastika tattooed on his chest. That isn't to say I don't still listen to bands like GG Allin, but rather that I do so quietly and in more personal, adult situations -- like in the shower, or doing my taxes.
And as we sort of touched on before, this shock value is likely what a lot of 4channers and younger right-wingers think they are creating:
See, the joke was this: Pretend that certain symbols like the "OK" hand sign are Nazi salutes to freak out the media into thinking it's real. Only guess what? "Pretending" something is a Nazi salute is ultimately the same goddamn thing as using an actual Nazi salute. And the more you do it, the more you end up attracting actual Nazis. Being "ironically" racist is just being racist, especially if you're not building to any punchline beyond "Look how racist we're being!"
And what comes next isn't pretty. Ever hear of Alt-Reich Nation? It was a Facebook group all about "jokingly" posting racist and sexist memes. I say "jokingly" because its creator came out and clarified just that -- as he put it to The New York Times, "Nothing is meant as true; we follow none of the beliefs." And if you're wondering why he had to make that public correction, it's because one of their members recently stabbed and killed someone in what appeared to be a hate crime. But I'm sure he was just doing it for the lulz.
No One Can Tell You're Being Radicalized If It's Happening Online
Going back to my own edgy punkness (and frankly the reason this whole subject feels personal to me), I got into that genre and style because I spent my junior high years feeling like a complete outcast. And not the cool kind spelled with a 'K.' I gravitated toward something that turned my depression into energy, something that boosted my self-worth and made me feel part of a community.
So I can't really say it's a bad thing if young people are doing the same with the internet. However, what makes it vastly different is that before computers, taking part in a community meant being seen doing it. There was a level of accountability toward your family and friends. That goes for the unhealthy hate groups as well. It used to be that racist and violent groups congregated in a very visual way, and anyone joining would have to physically do so by attending rallies or shows or meetings. For communities and law enforcement and parents and peers, if someone became a white supremacist, that transition would come with a lot of huge red flags (ya know, like the swastika one). But now? Not so much.
A guy like Dylann Roof, who shot up the church in Charleston, certainly posed with his fair share of Confederate Flags and guns, but so do a lot of people. His indoctrination into violence and white supremacy happened quietly online, as it does for most everyone who joins some kind of hate group these days. It can be so goddamn under the table that a respectable member of society can not only be a part of a hate group, but fucking create one:
And what's worse is that this problem is especially evident with law enforcement. That Mr. Roof? He had run into the cops multiple times in the past, even being questioned by the police for owning parts to a firearm. But since there was nothing physical linking him to any potential violence, there was no reason to keep an eye on him. Same with the Orlando nightclub shooter, whose neighbor flat-out reported him to the FBI for potential radicalization. They thoroughly investigated it and found no hard evidence, despite it being completely true. How did they miss it? Because it was happening online, while he was alone, with nobody noticing what was happening. He was radicalized into committing mass murder without leaving the comfort of his ergonomic office chair and microwave nachos. And while that certainly speaks volumes about the delightful convenience of the digital age, I'd like to hope you're seeing what the big problem is here. Especially because these two instances aren't the only ones by a long shot ...
Every Goddamn Modern Spree Killer Fits This Pattern
Guys. Literally every time some asshole suddenly kills a bunch of people with an ideological motivation, we find out that they belonged to some kind of online community spouting their exact motivations. Dylann Roof described in detail his long nights pouring through racist stories on the Council of Conservative Citizens webpage which eventually led him to be radicalized. The Oregon community college shooter from 2015? He declared his intentions on a 4chan thread he frequented (adjoined with a Pepe meme). The Dallas shooter who targeted cops? Yet again, he was a part of online hate groups and posted about the killings online. Remember Elliot Rodger, who went around targeting women in Isla Vista, California, killing seven? Not only did he post YouTube videos leading up to it, but he was also a member of anti-women forums online.
I can keep going. You probably don't even remember the guy back in 2007 who shot up a megachurch in Colorado, killing four. He was a member of an anti-Christian site the feds were alerted to hours after the incident. And just recently, there was the unhinged and racist Portland train attacker, who was deemed too intense for a right-wing rally and kept to the internet instead.
Look, I really can't stress this enough: Nowhere am I saying that the internet is changing sane people into racist lunatics. Nor am I trying to ignore the millions of other factors, like mental health care and gun control, which play into the uptick of spree killings. And to be honest, I can't even offer a definitive solution beyond personal responsibility and attention toward people around you who may be troubled. But maybe it would be a good start to at least keep a compassionate eye on your friends and family, and be there to let them know that the non-meme world is pretty cool, too. Otherwise this will just continue, and not even our sexy lizards will be safe.
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