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Ideological Nihilism and Aesthetic Violence: Mass Shooters and Online Antisocial Subcultures

Ideological Nihilism and Aesthetic Violence: Mass Shooters and Online Antisocial Subcultures
13th July 2022 Simon Purdue
In Insights

The Highland Park shooter’s online footprint has seen a lot of scrutiny in the week since his attack, and rightly so. In attempting to understand the reasons and motivations for the attack it is important to analyse the complex and confusing impression that the shooter left on the sites he regularly frequented, however the search for any ideological motive is a futile one. Discussions have abounded in recent days about the political affiliations of the man who shot dozens of revellers while they celebrated July 4th, however, no easy narrative around the killer’s ideology can be formed. Unlike the man who attacked the Tops grocery store in Buffalo or the men who shot worshippers at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, the Highland Park shooter left no political manifesto, no 4Chan posts about birthrates, and no live stream in which he talked about his choice of targets or the reason for his attack. Instead, he left a slew of cryptic music videos, an extensive history of interaction on a popular gore website, and a supposedly coded collection of numbers in an e-book posted to Amazon. The shooter’s online activity was not indicative of extremism as it has traditionally been understood, rather it was indicative of a much broader and arguably more concerning trend in mass violence – ideological nihilism.

The rise in ideological nihilism – or the absolute embrace of apocalyptic thinking and what is often referred to online as ‘doomerism’ – has come hand in hand with the rapid emergence of dozens if not hundreds of online antisocial subcultures which actively promote the aesthetic of nihilism and violence. The proliferation of these subcultures is by no means a new phenomenon, however, the process has rapidly accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased time spent online by many young people in particular during the initial stages of the crisis, combined with the social isolation brought about by the associated lockdowns and school closures drove some users to darker corners of social media and the internet more broadly, where they often found burgeoning niche communities eager to accept them. 

The vast majority of these subcultures and online communities are by their very nature benign and nonviolent, however, the inherently antisocial and nihilistic subsect has grown significantly, likely encouraged by the political turmoil, social upheaval, and general apocalypticism of the past two years. Within the ideologically nihilistic online space, disconnection and broad discontent with society is central to the worldview, and active rebellion against society in one form or another is often encouraged. Within the most extreme elements of this subcultural milieu, mass violence itself is often encouraged, particularly in cases in which extremist and ideological infiltration is a factor. In these spaces mass shooters are hailed as ‘saints’, and – as is the case with white supremacist mass killers – body counts and damage are gamified and held up as targets to be beaten. Nihilism and misanthropy are central to this phenomenon, and a deep irreconcilable disconnect from society and community is often the catalyst that transforms an adherent of an antisocial subculture into a mass shooter.

The example that is perhaps most widely known is that of the involuntary celibate movement, often shortened to incel. The incel movement relies heavily on the idea of ideological nihilism, and it is this very fact that makes the movement so dangerous. The growing subculture’s ideology is rooted in a deep and violent misogyny, and in the many terror attacks committed in the name of incels, the victims are overwhelmingly female. What drives these men to the point of committing their violent acts is the apocalyptic and suicidal thinking that is central to the language and aesthetics of the movement. Incels promote the idea of taking the ‘black pill’ – an extension of the Matrix-inspired ‘red pill’ meme of the Men’s Rights Movement and the broader far-right. This black pill ultimately represents nihilism; the blackpill ideology is one of hopelessness, self-loathing, apocalypticism, and a deep hatred of ‘normie’ society, and it is this ideology which inspires so many adherents to the movement to ‘go ER’ – a reference to the 2014 Isla Vista shooter – and commit acts of mass violence. The aesthetic and ideology of violent nihilism are absolutely central to the movement, and within the microcosm of the dedicated incel forums, the concept spreads in a way similar to the cumulative extremism seen on extremist forums, in that users compete to be on the leading edge of the most extreme, nihilistic and violent content on the sites. Thus these online spaces spiral towards radicalisation and extremism at a breakneck pace, actively encouraged by the accelerationists and ideologues who use the forums to fulfil their own desire to see mass violence and the ultimate collapse of society as a result.

The incel movement and the online spaces that adherents frequent are indicative of the wider trend that ultimately fed the violent ideation of the Highland Park shooter and which will undoubtedly contribute to more mass violence in the near future. In a social media sweep of reactions to the July 4th massacre, I found dozens of social media posts that, in the wake of any act of mass violence, would be considered glaring ‘red flags’.Many of these posts came from antisocial, nihilistic online subcultures whose members pushed the boundary of ‘edginess’ toward outright violence, including one user on Twitter who wrote that the character they worshipped would someday “whisper in [their] ear… u r a warrior express the divine masculine kill kill kill for me.”

This process is compounded by the desensitisation to violence that often occurs in these spaces and in the process of finding them. The Highland Park shooter, for example, was highly active on an online gore forum, on which graphic images and videos of shootings, beheadings, rapes, fatal accidents, and every imaginable atrocity can be found. On this site he found his own community, sharing images and jokes with other users and posting graphic hand-drawn images depicting hangings and violent, murderous sexual assault. In this space where violence was not only not taboo, but the norm, this behaviour was encouraged. His violent ideations were fed and nurtured by a community that celebrated death and praised what can only be described as the characteristic traits of psychopathy. Similarly, in incel forums, on the dark corners of 4Chan, and in other antisocial online communities, written descriptions of violent plans and graphic visual gore are accepted and even promoted. Livestreams of attacks are circulated with gleeful enthusiasm and death is treated as entertainment, no matter how graphic or gruesome. This desensitisation to death and violence is a critical element in allowing perpetrators of mass violence to rationalise and justify their own plans, dehumanising their eventual victims and increasing the disconnect between them and the community they eventually choose to attack.

The trend is being actively encouraged by extremists, who see these burgeoning nihilistic communities as fertile ground for radicalisation and stochastic terrorism. Accelerationists actively push violent content on forums within many of these communities and imbue their posts and interactions with antisemitic conspiracy theories and white supremacist dog whistles. On the gore forum on which the Highland Park shooter was so active, many of the users he regularly interacted with used Nazi-inspired memes as their profile pictures and posted antisemitic and even genocidal content along with their regular stream of gore videos. Similarly, on incel forums, neo-Nazi ‘Stormcels’ imbue their misogynistic posts with antisemitism and conspiratorial ideas about demographic replacement and the role of the incel community in fighting ‘white genocide’. The aim in many of these cases is to turn the fatalism and rage of nihilistic online communities towards specific ideological targets, encouraging radicalisation to the point of violence and thus furthering their violent accelerationist agenda. 

The real danger of the ideological nihilism that is so rampant within these communities is that, on a personal level, death isn’t something to be feared. The ideology is inherently fatalistic and even suicidal, and for those who have been radicalised within the context of ideological nihilism, death is seen as something to be accepted or even praised. Within the incel and accelerationist online communities death in the process of mass killing is framed as a martyrdom of sorts, and within the broader nihilistic online space death by any means is seen as glorious or, at the very least, an escape. Ideological nihilism, by its very nature, seeks to erode and ultimately remove the self-preservation instinct that acts as the last bulwark preventing many extremists from committing acts of mass violence. This presents an extremely worrying problem for extremism and security practitioners hoping to intervene to prevent violence. When extremists, or indeed anybody with a fascination with violence feels like they have nothing to live for, they are significantly more likely to commit an attack. The prevalence of nihilism and fatalism both as ideology in and of themselves and in tandem with extremist ideology is creating what Alex Newhouse described as a burgeoning mass shooter culture.

The question obviously remains for anyone working to prevent violence or counter violent extremism – how can we tackle such a nebulous and insidious problem? Combatting extremism is never an easy task, but when there is a clear ideology, a clear radicalisation pathway, and a clear modus operandi, there are at least proven, clear-cut strategies which can be used to intervene in the radicalisation journey. In the case of ideological nihilism, the process of radicalisation happens in different ways, at different paces, and to people that may not have previously been considered at risk of radicalisation. In order to effectively challenge this trend, a fundamental societal shift is necessary; we need to ensure that young people feel a connection to their real-world communities, whether that be school, the workplace, or elsewhere. Many mass shooters, particularly socially motivated mass shooters, target their own community, often killing people with whom they might have had previous interactions, or who were adjacent to their own lives in one way or another. Building a sense of community engagement is central to limiting the potential impact of nihilistic online communities in the lives of young people, and the only way to effectively prevent this kind of violence is through fundamental structural change. For extremism researchers, recognising the role of nihilism in the online spaces we frequent is key, and acknowledging those people and ideas that fall outside the traditional borders of what we consider to be extremism is going to be increasingly important in future analysis. 

Dr. Simon Purdue is the Director of the Domestic Terrorism Threat Monitor (DTTM) Project at MEMRI in Washington, D.C.. He received his PhD from Northeastern University in 2021, where his work focused on gender and far-right extremism in the United States and United Kingdom. His first book, titled “Intersectional Hate: Race, Gender, and Violence on the Transatlantic Extreme-Right, 1969-2009,” will be released in late 2022.