This opinion piece is based largely on a thread we originally posted on our Twitter. This is not an extensive investigation or analysis, but hopefully will lead to more.
While much has been made of the alleged Highland Park shooter’s attendance of Trump rallies, more alarming is his presence in online subcultures detached from reality. The shooter inhabited communities focused on conspiracy theories, the paranormal, and deep nihilism. These communities cut off their participants from consensus reality at large and serve to lower the inhibitions of their participants towards violence.
These subcultures are distinct from the usual QAnon conspiracy theories associated with Trump followers and stand apart from the larger paranormal community, although those distances are continually growing smaller in the increasingly connected online world. We will specifically not be going into depth on where these communities are or what they share so as not to expose them to a larger audience.
The alleged shooter’s obsession with violence, school shootings, conspiracies, and Trumpism (as a way to destabilize the system/create chaos) echoes interests of similar online communities like the online incel community and the incelcore music community. At this time, there is no evidence the shooter was a member of these specific communities. However, the online communities the shooter inhabited exist in close connection to the incelcore online community. It should be noted that these communities are overflowing with racism, misogyny, transphobia, and more forms of hate and bigotry.
“Schizoposting” (an affected style fetishizing mental illness to appear dangerous and win subcultural credibility) and 4chan brain rot abound in these communities, and serve as important radicalization points for youth today. Unfortunately, the establishment is unprepared to examine situations such as these with nuance and to make sense of the online communities and subcultures that more and more mass shooters emerge from.
Alex Newhouse, aresearcher with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, described the activities of those involved in “schizoposting”:
“People in these communities create and post content that is purposefully designed to be incoherent, cobbled together from a mishmash of influences, and often with an overwhelming focus on graphic violence and aggressive visuals. This content is meant to be spread, and it is meant to transform a person’s mind into a state where it is more amenable to actually carrying out real-world attacks. It is designed to make violence the only possible solution to a world without distinction between fiction and reality.”
This statement is an initial thought on an online community that deserves closer attention. As is likely the case with the alleged shooter, much of the online presence/jokes/irony within these communities are an interntional obfuscation of what is actually believed. When one obfuscates belief until nothing is clear, reality seems out of reach, and undertaking a mass shooting is akin to one final massive post. Similarly, we know the alleged shooter was active on online gore communities, which had the effect of lowering the shooter’s inhibitions towards violence.
“Schizowave” (the online aesthetic, we are not implying anybody is schizophrenic or not and we don’t like this phrase) has broken into the mainstream. It’s a large part of Zoomer online culture now. And its way of unmooring people from reality has and will continue to lead to violence when combined with the right mix of other factors. Of course, there is no “Chemical X” that makes a mass shooter, but all these elements are gasoline on the fire and must be addressed.
Similarly, the alleged shooter’s extensive online presence should be viewed the same way as other shooters’ manifestos, with extreme caution and with the knowledge that it likely includes red herrings. These acts are often done to spread that very message, and carelessly sharing content from shooters helps them achieve their goals.
There is a lack of commonly used frames for understanding how people and subcultures that don’t fit the usual picture of conspiracy theorists fit into the larger picture and it’s biting us in the ass. Conspiracy theories such as these are all over TikTok, were all over Tumblr, young people.
To be clear, not everyone involved in these communities will be involved in acts of violence. Merely being a part of one of these communities does not make someone a criminal or a threat, but it may be a part of the elements that add up to someone perpetrating an act of mass violence. We want people to be aware of this while not repeating or riling up another satanic panic.
Ultimately, our conversations around mass shootings, radicalization, and online communities demand nuance.