The Highland Park suspect belongs to a new violent extremist culture. : NPR

Law enforcement secures the scene after a mass shooting Monday during a July 4 parade in downtown Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago.

Nam Y. Huh/AP


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Nam Y. Huh/AP


Law enforcement secures the scene after a mass shooting Monday during a July 4 parade in downtown Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Moments after law enforcement authorities released the name of a “person of interest” in the fatal shooting at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, researchers on extremism, journalists and some members of the public rushed online. They uncovered a large trail of digital activity believed to be linked to Robert “Bobby” Crimo III, now the named suspect in the mass shooting. But sifting through the mine of memes, photos, music, rap videos and more, experts on extremism agree: there is no clear political or ideological motivation.

Instead, many extremism and tech experts say this suspect’s activity fits a still-emerging profile of a mass shooter. Rather than falling into categories familiar to law enforcement and the public, such as white supremacists, radical Islamists, or anti-government activists, it requires an understanding of the dark online subcultures that overlap and feed into each other. in such a way as to glorify violence and promote nihilism. Alarmingly, these experts claim that these online mediums have been linked to an increasing number of mass shootings over time.

“I described this as a kind of mass shooter creation machine,” said Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “A lot of these communities are designed to create mass shooters over time, over and over again.”

A mass shooter “Culture”

Researchers who have combed through Crimo’s digital fingerprint say the content is surprisingly unoriginal.

“It’s like zooming in on zoom trends and mass murders that have happened before,” said Sarah Hightower, using a term that refers to members of Generation Z. Hightower is an independent researcher specializing in the extreme right and the online cult. movements.

For example, Hightower noted a video that shows a cartoon version of the suspect with a long gun in a bloody confrontation with law enforcement officers.

“He’s not the first mass shooter to come alive in an animated Columbine Massacre-type music video,” she said. Hightower said a man who committed a mass murder/suicide at a Pennsylvania grocery store in 2017 did the same.

Extremism researchers said the suspect’s online content provides audiences with a carefully curated persona that fits an image of mass shooters, styled on the killers of the 1999 Columbine school massacre. They said that this image has come to grip some of the young people in certain online communities.

“It’s actually very much like Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters ‘deplorable’ and what happened is they then chose to embody that label and wear it on hats. and t-shirts and it became a proud label within the group,” said Emmi Conley, an independent researcher on far-right movements, digital propaganda and online subcultures. “Similarly, the way we’ve talked about lone actor violence before – in that they’re ‘mentally ill’, they’re confused, they’re not part of anything, they’re ‘schizophrenic young men “who do their own thing, separate from any other band or actor – they started embodying that.”

Conley said this deliberate incarnation of an almost cartoonish version of a mass shooter is intended to play on a “known aesthetic” of what such an individual looks like in the popular imagination, and also to lay claim to the brand of to be a mass shooter.

“[Crimo] does not correspond to an individual ideology, because ideology is irrelevant in this case,” Conley said. “The thing that starts to link this type of violent actor to other types of violent actors isn’t ideological, it’s aesthetic. “

Emphasis on aesthetics over ideology

The visual language that Crimo used in its curated online presence included elements that researchers say are common to a particular young online subculture. It includes neon lights or strobes and fast cuts between video scenes, accompanied by lo-fi techno music. Newhouse also noted that Crimo’s seemingly chaotic and random selection of memes and images echoed what he had seen with suspects in other mass shootings, such as those in Uvalde, Texas, and Newhouse. ‘Oxford, Michigan.

“It’s all designed to be, one, shared; two, completely incomprehensible to anyone like us looking at it; and third, to be a way to break down a person’s natural reluctance to commit violence,” Newhouse said. “It’s designed to break a person’s brain.”

Conley added that the fixation on aesthetics also extends to how would-be shooters in these online mediums view the optics of their attacks.

“Every mass shooting that was done with an AR 15, somewhere, it was a bit about doing a mass shooting with the AR 15 because it’s ‘the mass shooting weapon’ – not only because it’s the most effective weapon,” she said. . “There’s been so many mass shootings now that it’s performance art. There’s a particular way of doing it. There’s a particular way of looking.”

Toxic online spaces

The aesthetic has forged a web of different digital subcultures that are deeply nihilistic, use dehumanizing language, and glorify violence. Often originating from the 4chan website, they include fan communities devoted to mass shooters and serial killers, and online forums dedicated to sharing gory content. While experts noted that most people who participate in these marginal communities do not commit mass shootings, they said these are spaces that produce conditions of violence.

“Understanding these things as loosely woven ecosystems [and as] more nebulous cultural movers, rather than a group of memberships, will be the first step to better visualizing this threat,” Conley said.

Bad actors seeking to push others toward violence in real life have been known to participate in these spaces, Conley and Newhouse said. Additionally, horror and dark alternate reality games and immersive fan-fiction communities are also part of this complex web of subcultures.

“The idea is that everyone within these communities sort of loses track of what’s real and what’s fake,” Newhouse said, “and they start to fantasize and fetishize violence, because this end is in a way the very essence of existence.”

The caricatured video of an armed Crimo in a bloody confrontation with police is one example that researchers point to when explaining how some violent and fringe online communities come to influence user behavior.

“There’s this kind of ‘gore-posting’ trend, which is basically posting shocking, graphic, and violent imagery in an attempt to build some kind of camaraderie between the users of these spaces,” Melanie Smith said, Head of Research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue United States. Crimo appears to have been active in at least one large so-called “gore forum”.

Experts agree that it is impossible to determine Crimo’s mental health from his online content. Newhouse said darker alternate reality communities and gory forums are designed to plant the seeds of despair, nihilism and reduce the natural reluctance to commit acts of violence. He said he noted an inflection point on Crimo’s timeline that may indicate he’s moved further away from real-world interaction and further into these online subcultures.

“From what we can tell, he has become extraordinarily alienated from both his musical audience and his in-person social networks, but has clearly begun to show signs of immersion in these much deeper internet communities” , did he declare.

Crimo was a rap artist who released music online. Newhouse said the style of Crimo’s latest album was also markedly different from previous ones.

“Something was going on during that time,” he said.

But Hightower noted that a key part of these communities is also performance.

“It’s like he’s going out of his way to make it look like he’s been detached from reality,” she said. “I don’t know whether or not this is an assignment he was doing or whether he actually has a real psychotic disorder.”

Either way, Conley said once individuals are exposed to these particular kinds of online communities, it can be difficult to revert to healthier online habits.

“If you go down that spiral deeper and deeper into really, really marginal and really violent spaces, there’s a point in that spiral where you can’t just go back to normal now,” she said. “You’ve invested too much in this. Too much sanity, too much time, energy. You can’t just say, ‘Well, that crossed the line for me, I’m going to go back to that now.’ It traps you there.”

The challenge of intervening

Experts worry that gaps in understanding the conditions that contribute to this type of mass shooting, as well as legal limitations, could hamper efforts to prevent future similar attacks.

“It’s not hard to figure out where the different violent spaces are,” Conley said. “What’s hard is what do you do once you find one, if the red flag still falls into free speech territory. Because right now we have no ability to intervention, we only have law enforcement.”

The complexity and nuance of these subcultures, and the way they interact with each other, also present a challenge for parents wanting to prevent their children from falling into these online activities. The particularly at-risk age group, Newhouse said, is 13 to 24, mostly men.

“If someone doesn’t even understand the subculture, how are they going to intervene effectively?” asked Hightower.

Still, Newhouse said he believes tech companies, working with journalists, experts and the public, can alleviate the problem through content moderation. He and other experts agreed that Crimo should not be viewed as an outlier, and that the need for a common understanding of this mass shooter profile will only be more urgent.

“He won’t be the only one, I can tell you now,” Hightower said. “You will see more and more young boys [and men] As [Crimo] skip. It won’t just be neo-Nazis and terrorists.”

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