Following recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas and Highland Park, Illinois, details have emerged that all three perpetrators displayed similar concerning, and often extensive, online behaviour prior to the attacks – from watching footage of previous mass shootings, to idolising mass shooters to expressing intent to harm other students or commit violence against women and girls.
At this stage, however, the Highland Park shooter is only somewhat distinctive from other recent mass shooters. The Uvalde, Texas, school shooter, for example, was also obsessed with serial killers and mass shooters. He reportedly filmed himself killing cats, and had an history of sexual harassment and violence against young women online. The perpetrator of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history in Parkland, Florida in 2018, similarly shared his obsession with shootings and his intentions to “become a professional school shooter” on social media, including sharing photos of his guns on Instagram.
Moonshot’s own research identified that the number of online searches related to mass shootings is significant, and supports the idea that a mass shooter/school shooter subculture exists online and that it possibly inspires violence. In an R&D research project run between November-December 2021, Moonshot examined Google searches in California and recorded over 40,000 search queries looking for more information on mass shooters and shootings.
Two thirds (62%) of all searches were seeking forum discussions on the topic, including looking for footage of school shooters or mass shootings, and reading written material from past shooters. While these included ‘curiosity searches’ from individuals possibly looking for ‘true crime’ like content, over 30% of searches indicated an affinity with mass shooters, with searchers using shooters’ nicknames, searching for aesthetic details about their clothes or style or seeking music related to them or gun violence.
In one month alone, 50 searches also indicated an intention to harm others, including searches about how to shoot schools or students (search terms included: “kill classmates”; “shoot students”; “attack school”; “how to kill classmates”; “how to kill students”). A further 2% of searches suggested an interest in emulating a mass shooter or shooting, for example, looking for games that reconstruct past shootings and allow players to act out the role of shooters.
Searching for Help While Preparing For Murder
Alongside engaging with violent content online, some perpetrators of mass shootings across the US also looked for help online, including mental health support, advice about romantic relationships, how to achieve financial independence, or guidance on how to leave harmful communities or violent movements. In the months preceding his attack, the 19-year-old Parkland, Florida (2018) shooter was searching for help with dating, and how to manage homicidal thoughts. His searches and phone content revealed cries for help:
“My life is a mess idk what to do anymore. Everyday I get even more agitated at everyone cause my life is unfair. Everything and everyone is happy except for me I want to kill people but I don’t know how I can do it. Walk to a park, get someone to pick me up I just don’t know anymore but it will happen soon.”
Similarly, prior to the attack in 2005, the shooter in Red Lake, Minnesota, received psychiatric treatment for suicidal ideation. The online journal of the 18-year-old illustrated his spiralling thoughts: “Right about now I feel as low as I ever have…I’m starting to regret sticking around. I should’ve taken the razor blade express last time around.” On other forums, he shared a story he had written, graphically depicting a school shooting in a small town that would resemble his own and romanticising his own death.
There is a clear opportunity to find ways to help those who are exhibiting concerning behaviours or seeking help online before they commit mass shootings or violence. This support needs to be actively signposted within online spaces where at-risk individuals are searching and engaging with harmful content.
In Moonshot’s recent work, we found that Americans who are consuming extremist or violent content online are 47% more likely than the general public to take up offers of mental health services online. This increases to 115% more likely for audiences looking to join an extremist group or movement. Our most successful digital campaigns designed to reach audiences consuming domestic violent extremist content across the U.S., included statements like “Anger and grief can be isolating,” and offered resources to de-escalate users from violence. This highlights that we can work towards preventing devastating, mass violence through reaching out and supporting those at-risk before they perpetrate an attack.
Creating Bystander Resources, Online and Off
In many cases, perpetrators’ behaviour (both online and off) was noticed by family, friends, teachers, and others, otherwise known as ‘bystanders’, who had interacted with them prior to the attacks.
An F.B.I study conducted in 2018 found that, in 62% of cases, people who knew mass shooters had observed worrying behaviour. In 57% cases, someone noticed the future attacker having a concerning interaction with another person, and in 56% of cases, the person had divulged an intent to hurt people in some way. The Oxford, Michigan, shooter had multiple interactions with both teachers and school counsellors who observed him looking at photos of bullets and drawing violent images of guns, blood, and dead bodies alongside the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me”, but was sent back to class without further intervention. Prior to the attack, he told friends that he was struggling and needed help, and wrote in his journal that he had no one to help him.
Preliminary scoping by Moonshot indicates that bystanders are searching on Google, Reddit, and beyond, for support and information on how to help friends, family, and others who are displaying concerning behaviour or have become involved in harmful communities or violent movements. Initial research suggests that searches are wide-ranging in terms of content, but examples include ‘I think my son is an incel’; peers looking for advice for a ‘racist’ or ‘misogynist’ friend, and those looking for help for someone they think has been ‘brainwashed’ or might be ‘joining a cult’.
While there are a small number of guides and toolkits available (see ADL’s Extreme Measures: How to Help Young People Counter Extremist Recruitment: A Toolkit for Educators, Parents and Families; UNESCO’s A Teacher’s guide on the prevention of violent extremism; and American University PERIL & SPLC’s Building Resilience & Confronting Risk: The parents and caregivers guide to online radicalization, for example), many bystanders struggle to find support or possible interventions.
Peers are uniquely positioned to identify warning signs and help their friends, classmates, or siblings who may be at risk. For example, classmates of the Red Lake, Minnesota shooter reported that he had shown them disturbing drawings in his notebook, some depicting people with bullet holes in their heads, and of skeletons and half-living people with blank stares.
School peers and other young people who engaged with the Uvalde school shooter also raised concerns among each other about his social media activity. After he shared an image of two rifles on his Instagram story, a student at the high school messaged the shooter’s cousin asking how this person could obtain a gun, and then expressed that he was scared to go school. Earlier in the year, the perpetrator unsuccessfully asked his sister to buy him a gun and told friends in group chat he was going to buy one. Others who interacted with the shooter on social media identified similar concerning behaviour, including a 15-year-old girl in Germany who the shooter video-called during a trip to a gun store, and text directly prior to the attack after murdering his grandmother: “I just shot my grandma in her head…Ima go shoot up a elementary school rn.”
Bystander interventions and resources must not only be tailored for digital delivery and signposted across both mainstream and fringe social media platforms, but specifically designed to engage and support young people looking for ways to support or help their peers. And, we know from experience that this can work. In Virgina, when an 18-year-old student started tweeting photos of guns along with violent threats towards his high school, his classmates immediately reported him to the school and police. The student initially disappeared for two days, before turning himself in without causing harm to anyone. While the student was missing, the police were stationed at every school in the town, prepared in case of attack.
Behind the numbers and different examples, there are hundreds of people and families affected by mass shootings, all with individual stories of grief, distress and resilience. While working to better understand the dynamics of mass shooterism, including the engagement with extremist, violent online subcultures and aesthetics, it is essential to find ways to support and provide accessible resources for those who may be concerned about their child, sibling, classmate, student, or colleague. Moonshot is currently involved in several projects aimed at better understanding the needs of bystanders and improving access to resources and support for family and friends concerned about a loved one.
Recommended guides and toolkits for bystanders
- ADL’s Extreme Measures: How to Help Young People Counter Extremist Recruitment: A Toolkit for Educators, Parents and Families
- SPLC & PERIL’s Building Resilience & Confronting Risk: The parents and caregivers guide to online radicalization
- Western States Center’s Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit
- Western States Center’s Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers
- UNESCO’s A Teacher’s guide on the prevention of violent extremism
- ‘What if I was Wrong?,’ an Educator’s Book of Activities to Prevent Radicalization from The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence
- Information Kit for School Personnel: Radicalization Leading to Violence in Schools: A Better Understanding for a Better Response from the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence
- US Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE), University of Nebraska Omaha
This Insight was originally posted on Moonshot’s blog. For more information on Moonshot’s digital interventions, please visit their website or get in touch to discuss ways to collaborate: [email protected].