The Terrifying Trend of White Men Radicalized Online Becoming IRL Terrorists
It's no accident that young white guys with a fondness for the darkest part of the internet are descending into far-right violence.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
The incidents keep piling up, like the cresting wave of an incoming tide.
A young, self-described "sovereign citizen" is implicated in a mass shooting at a Waffle House in Tennessee that kills four nonwhite customers. An "involuntary celibate," or incel, is arrested over a Toronto van attack that kills ten people. A young, apparent neo-Nazi involved in an online fascist group is arrested in Illinois with a large cache of weapons. Another young man in Georgia, who reportedly "idolized" the teenager who killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, opens fire on cars on a Georgia freeway, injuring two people before shooting himself.
These incidents, all from within the past month or so, have variables, of course. Besides the settings, methods of violence, and kinds of weaponry used, distinct agendas seem to have undergirded them. But they all appear to generally fall under the far-right ideological umbrella.
They also have something important in common: They were all committed by young white men who had apparently been radicalized online.
That’s no accident. The surge of radical-right organizing by the mostly online alt right in recent years has, in fact, been consciously directed at precisely that demographic: white men between about 14 and 30, underemployed and frustrated with their lives. This radicalization, in and of itself, is not breaking news. What does seem novel to me, as a longtime observer of far-right organizing, is that the violence that always lurked under the surface of such rhetoric is now increasingly manifesting itself in extreme acts of lone-wolf aggression.
The details of some of the motivations involved in recent incidents have not been entirely settled. 29-year-old Travis Reinking, the man accused in the Waffle House case, claimed a background of at least marginal involvement in the far-right sovereign-citizens' movement. But it's not at all clear that ideology inspired him to act out murderously, even if the fact that the dead were all black or Hispanic raises the distinct likelihood of a racial motivation in that crime. Reinking awaits trial in Tennessee.
It’s also not clear what it means that Rex Whitmire Harbour, the 26-year-old accused of opening fire on passing cars on a Georgia freeway, venerated Parkland suspect Nikolas Cruz and left-behind a "hate-filled" message. Still, latching onto a notorious alleged mass shooter who reportedly had swastikas engraved on his ammo clips fits the general pattern here, as does Harbour's apparent fascination with historical figures from Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, because of social-media messages and other evidence, it’s fairly clear that accused Toronto van attacker Alek Minassian, 25, was enraged by his lack of romantic success with women. He posted sympathetically about incels like himself, and wrote warmly of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who in May 2014 carried out a mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, that left seven dead (including himself) and more wounded after expressing similarly deranged ideas about sex. Then there's 19-year-old Jakub Zak of Illinois, who stands accused of stockpiling weapons illegally as part of his fascist ideology—he was reportedly an active member of Patriot Front, an online hate group—and may have been involved in a number of other crimes as well.
Again, the behavioral pattern we’ve seen intensify in recent weeks is not a brand new one. The modern archetype may have been set back in 2015 by Dylann Roof, the then-21-year-old South Carolina white man who walked into a black church in Charleston and murdered nine congregants. The rootless Roof, officially unaffiliated with any hate or extremist groups but a participant in their online activity, seems to have been driven to seemingly random violence at least in part by his absorption in conspiracy and online forums and chat rooms dedicated to hateful ideologies.
Since then, at least 27 people were murdered and 52 more injured in attacks by mostly young men linked to the alt right and its online radicalization process before the incidents of the past month. They included a conspiracy theorist who allegedly stabbed his father to death at the height of an argument that appears to have been about Pizzagate, a Maryland student who allegedly stabbed a black man to death after he refused to move out of his way, and a Portland drifter accused of stabbing two commuters to death when they attempted to shut down his anti-Muslim tirade.
Some incidents, including the Parkland shooting itself, remain fuzzy. On social media, Cruz was seemingly obsessed with violence, guns, and race, once posting on Instagram that "I hate Jews, niggers and immigrants." It remains unclear to what extent that hatred fueled the shooting rampage. Likewise, the motives and intentions of a young white man who accidentally blew himself up while making bombs at his Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, home, remain under official wraps for now.
Even so, the mechanism for this kind of radicalization is uniform: Disaffected young men are recruited by overt appeals to their egos and desire to appear heroic. The appeals often employ transgressive rhetoric, with everything from racist humor to threats of violence, making participants feel that they’re being edgy and dark. The main fodder for their evolving worldview, however, is conspiracy theories.
These theories all tell the same larger narrative: That the world is secretly run by a nefarious cabal of globalists (who just happen to be Jewish), and that they employ an endless catalog of dirty tricks and "false flags" to ensure the world doesn’t know about their manipulations, the whole point of which ultimately is the enslavement of mankind. Each day’s news events can thus be interpreted through the up-is-down prism this worldview imposes, ensuring that every national tragedy or mass shooting is soon enmeshed in a web of theories about its real purpose.
The precise far-right cause in question often seems less important than the broader resort to inflicting harm.
"Glorification of violence generally among the estranged is its own ideology," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University in San Bernardino. "So, people with amorphous or offbeat philosophies often embrace violence as an ideology, not just a method. And they’re comfortable with dovetailing philosophies."
This radicalization appears to be spreading like kudzu: A young Montreal alt-right activist was recently outed by student journalists as one of the leading propagandists in the online neo-Nazi forums Iron March, working to signal-boost racist groups like Atomwaffen Division. Along similar lines, ProPublica recently exposed the membership of some Atomwaffen activists among the ranks of active-duty American military.
The target demographic for online far-right radicalization could not be more clear. As Andrew Anglin, publisher and founder of the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, put it this January, "My site is mainly designed to target children." Likewise, at the annual white-nationalist American Renaissance conference in Tennessee last month, longtime supremacists bragged of their recruitment efforts among younger people: "American Renaissance attendees are now younger and more evenly divided among the sexes than in the past" one speaker noted, before gushing over the white-nationalist college campus group Identity Evropa.
When Americans have talked about online radicalization in the recent past, most of us tended to think of it in terms of radical Islamists from groups such as Islamic State, who have been known to leverage the technology to their advantage, particularly social media. But a study by terrorism expert J.M. Berger published way back in 2016 found that white nationalists were far outstripping their Islamist counterparts: "On Twitter, ISIS’s preferred social platform, American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600 percent since 2012. Today, they outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day."
Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center—the watchdog group with which I am affiliated—told me it "is definitely the case” that the violence SPLC has long warned against and carefully tracked is increasingly manifesting itself right now.
"Online radicalization seems to be speeding up, with young men, particularly white men, diving into extremist ideologies quicker and quicker," she said, adding, "the result seems to be more violence, as these examples indicate. It is a serious problem and we don’t seem to have any real solutions for it. These cases also show that an era of violence brought on by the internet is indeed upon us, with no end in sight.”
Yet the response to the string of acts has been strangely muted in the mainstream media, especially on cable news, where most discussions of the events have focused on issues around gun violence, or on the particulars of the noxious incel phenomenon. The online-radicalization thread that connects all these stories together is the gorilla that everyone tiptoes around in the room—and one America ignores at its own peril.
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