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Why the Highland Park suspect represents a different kind of violent extremism

Law enforcement personnel secure the scene after a mass shooting Monday at a Fourth of July parade in downtown Highland Park, a Chicago suburb.
Nam Y. Huh
/
AP
Law enforcement personnel secure the scene after a mass shooting Monday at a Fourth of July parade in downtown Highland Park, a Chicago suburb.

Moments after law enforcement authorities disclosed the name of a "person of interest" in the deadly shooting at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois, extremism researchers, journalists and some members of the public rushed online. They discovered an extensive 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 trove of memes, photos, music, rap videos and more, extremism experts agree: There is no clear political or ideological motivation.

Instead, many experts on extremism and technology say this suspect's activity fits with a still-emerging profile of mass shooter. Rather than falling neatly into categories familiar to law enforcement and the public, such as white supremacists, radical Islamists or antigovernment militants, it requires an understanding of dark, online subcultures that overlap and feed into each other in ways that glorify violence and foster nihilism. Alarmingly, these experts say these online milieus have been tied to an increasing number of mass shootings over time.

"I've described this as sort of like a 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 spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over."

A mass shooter "culture"

Researchers who've combed through Crimo's digital footprint say the content is strikingly unoriginal.

"It's just like a zoomer spin on zoomer trends and mass murders that have already been done before," said Sarah Hightower, using a term that refers to members of Generation Z. Hightower is an independent researcher focused on the extreme far right and online cultic movements.

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

"He's not the first mass shooter to animate himself into a Columbine massacre-type animated music video," she said. Hightower said a man who committed a mass-murder/suicide at a grocery store in Pennsylvania in 2017 did the same.

Extremism researchers said the suspect's online content offers to the public a carefully curated persona that fits with an image of mass shooters, styled on the killers in the 1999 Columbine school massacre. They said this image has come to hold a portion of young people in certain online communities in thrall.

"It's actually very comparable to Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as 'deplorables,' and the thing that happened was that they then chose to embody that label and wore it on hats and T-shirts and it became a proud in-group label," said Emmi Conley, an independent researcher of far-right extremist movements, digital propaganda and online subcultures. "Similarly, the way that we have previously talked about lone actor violence — in that they are 'mentally ill,' they're confused, they aren't part of anything, they are 'schizophrenic young men' off doing their own thing, distinct from any other groups or actors — they started to embody that."

Conley said this purposeful embodiment of an almost cartoonized version of a mass shooter is intended to play to a "known aesthetic" of what such an individual looks like in the popular imagination, and also to claim the brand of being a mass shooter.

"[Crimo] doesn't fit into an individual ideology, because ideology is irrelevant in this case," said Conley. "The thing that starts to tie this type of violent actor to other types of violent actors is not ideological, it is aesthetic. "

An emphasis on aesthetics over ideology

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

"It is all designed to be, one, shared; two, completely incomprehensible to anyone like us who are looking onto it; and three, to be a way of breaking down a person's natural reluctance to commit violence," said Newhouse. "It is designed to break a person's brain."

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

"Every mass shooting that's been committed with an AR 15, somewhere it was a little bit about doing a mass shooting with the AR 15 because that is the 'mass shooter weapon' — not just because it is the most effective weapon," she said. "There have been so many mass shootings now that it is a performance art. There is a particular way you do it. There's a particular way you look."

Toxic online spaces

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

"Understanding these things as loosely knit ecosystems [and as] more nebulous culture movers, rather than a groups of memberships, is going to be the first step to getting better at visualizing this threat," said Conley.

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

"The idea is that everyone within these communities sort of lose track of what is real and what is fake," said Newhouse, "and they start fantasizing about and fetishizing violence as sort of this end all be all of the essence of existing."

The cartoonized video of an armed Crimo in a bloody standoff with police is one example that researchers point to when explaining how some violent, fringe online communities come to influence users' behavior.

"There's this kind of tendency to 'gore-post,' which is essentially to post shocking, graphic, violent imagery in an attempt to draw some kind of camaraderie between the users in these spaces," said Melanie Smith, head of research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue US. Crimo appears to have been active in at least one large so-called "gore forum."

Experts agree that it's impossible to determine Crimo's mental health condition from his online content. Newhouse said that the darker alternate reality communities and gore forums are designed to plant the seeds of hopelessness, nihilism and lower one's natural reluctance to commit violence. He said he noted an inflection point on Crimo's timeline that may indicate he had fallen farther away from real-world interaction and further into these online subcultures.

"From what we can tell, he became extraordinarily alienated from both his music audience and his in-person social networks, but clearly began exhibiting the signs of being immersed in these much much deeper Internet communities," he said.

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

"Something was going on in that period of time," he said.

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

"It's like he was going out of his way to sound like he had been detached from reality," she said. "I don't know whether or not this is an affectation that he was putting on or he actually does have a genuine psychotic disorder."

Regardless, Conley said once individuals are exposed to this particular genre of online communities, it can be difficult to return to healthier online habits.

"If you are kind of going down that spiral deeper and deeper into really, really fringe, really violent spaces, there is some point on that spiral where you can't just go back to being normal now," she said. "You've invested too much in this. Too much mental health, too much time, energy. You can't just be like, 'Well, this has crossed the line for me, I'm going to go back now.' It traps you there."

The challenge of intervening

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

"It's not hard to to figure out where different violent spaces are," said Conley. "What's hard is what do you do once you find one, if the red flag still falls within free speech territory. Because currently we have no intervention abilities, we only have law enforcement."

The complexity and nuance of these subcultures, and how they interact with each, other also presents a challenge for parents who are eager to keep their kids from falling into these online activities. The age group at particular risk, said Newhouse, are 13- to 24-year-olds, primarily male.

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

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

"He's not going to be the only one, I can tell you that right now," Hightower said. "You'll see more and more of young boys [and men] like [Crimo] popping off. It's not just going to be neo-Nazis and terrorists."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.