This series of Insights draws on the GNET report by Inform: ‘Cults and Online Violent Extremism’. Inform are an independent educational charity providing information about minority religions and sects which is as accurate, up-to-date and as evidence-based as possible. This Insight introduces the first grouping of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups. Other Insights in this series can be found here.
Inform’s report, Cults and Online Violent Extremism, proposes three ideal-typical groupings of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups, ‘Online Cultic Milieus’ and ‘Cultic Fandoms’. This Insight provides an overview of this final category: Cultic Fandoms. Cultic Fandoms draw on the historical use of ‘cult’ as an analytical category characterised by groups of people who have an intense interest in a particular subject alongside elements of online ‘fandoms’ where collective group identity can develop using online social spaces around a shared focus. In this framework, neither ‘cults’ nor ‘fandoms’ are necessarily socially deviant; by way of examples, consider the relatively uncontroversial cult of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism and fandoms around mainstream pop singers and bands. However, the groups chosen for this Insight—the Columbine ‘dark fandoms’ and the figure of Ted Kaczynski—illustrate more problematic aspects of this milieu, where events and individuals associated with violent extremism are the focus of attention.
Traditionally, one of the defining features of a cult has been the focus on a charismatic leader. The process by which a particular individual is elevated to the status of a hero or martyr can be understood as a parallel process to ‘charismatisation’ – the way social scientists have described how the quality of charisma in leadership is a dialogical development that requires a receptive audience in the context of more traditional high-demand religious groups.
Fans have an overwhelming liking or interest in a particular person, group, trend or idea. A ‘dark fandom’ is a group of people united by their fascination for people that carried out and/or events that culminated in an act of violence or atrocity. Online Cultic Fandoms are leaderless, have a focus on individuals who have committed acts of extremist violence and are elevated by the fans to the status of charismatic hero figures, or in some cases, saints or even gods.
There is a long history of people being attracted to those who commit atrocities, including serial and mass killings. Interest in killers is nothing new – for example, there have long been individuals and groups fascinated by Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer. The mass shootings in the United States that gained media prominence in 1991 shifted the focus of these ‘dark’ public interests from serial killers to mass shooters. The concern is that such communities could be a breeding ground for copycats, who seek to emulate or surpass those atrocities. There are several high-profile examples of engagement with Cultic Fandoms leading to or being connected to violent extremist atrocities. Examples include fans of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who targeted a government building in 1995, and Anders Breivik, who shot and killed dozens in Norway in 2011.
A primary concern with reference to Cultic Fandoms is those community spaces that promote the idealisation of specific violent incidences or individual perpetrators of violent extremism who are deified in what is termed ‘saints culture’. This third cultic arena is exemplified by the Columbine ‘dark fandoms’ and the figure of Ted Kaczynski.
Dark Fandoms of Columbine and Ted Kaczynski
A paradigmatic example of the dark fandom community is the various online discussion forums and gaming spaces focused on the 1999 Columbine school shooting in the United States, during which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people. This inspired other copycats, including Lindsay Souvannarath and her accomplices, who planned a massacre (which was foiled) in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 2015. There are different degrees to which a fan can identify with the perpetrator of an atrocity and the fandom can take on a spiritual quality. The Columbine shooters referred to themselves as gods and some fans, including Souvannarath, have declared a spiritual connection to them.
The figure of Ted Kaczynski (1943–2023) functions in a variety of ways within various digital communities. Kaczynski was an American domestic terrorist who detonated 16 bombs, killing three and injuring 23, between 1978 and 1995. His bombs were all intended for individuals whom he perceived to be fuelling the industrial-technological system, something he believed was so damaging to the environment that violence was the only answer. Although Kaczynski’s ideology is arguably more appropriately defined as anti-technological, he is frequently read as a radical environmentalist due to his focus on wild nature over modern technology. Thus, his perceived environmental ideology has partly resulted in his popularity within eco-fascist subcultures, alongside his advocacy of the use of violence.
Within Cultic Fandoms, people are united by their fascination with people who carried out and/or the events that culminated in violence. In many media reports and statements by the individuals allegedly inspired by ‘dark fandoms’ and ‘saint culture’, it is unclear whether such individuals were attracted to the personality of the perpetrator, their ideological beliefs, their violent methods or any combination thereof. It is important to understand cultic fandoms as incorporating a broad range of interests for individual engagement.
For example, among Columbine fans, a distinction can be made between empathy and ethics, where it is possible to empathise with the killers, but not agree with their actions (termed ‘condoners’). Broll suggests that Columbiners can be separated into four types: 1) researchers (who search for and share information); 2) fangirls (typically teenage girls with a crush on the perpetrators); 3) Columbiners (dedicated fans who empathise with the shooters but do not necessarily condone their actions); and 4) copycats. Most of those in Columbiner online spaces identify as teachers, often showing empathy towards the perpetrators who expressed feelings of being isolated and bullied at school.
As an example of ‘saints culture’, fans of Kaczynski appear to use the environment as an ideological and tactical resource to justify extreme violence against enemies that are singled out on the grounds of identity. At the same time, Kaczynski fans borrow and manipulate elements of radical environmental thought that, in some cases, have led to violent extremism. The manifestos of Anders Breivik (2011), Brenton Tarrant (2019) and Payton Gendron (2022) all show familiarity with Kaczynski’s writings as both ideological and tactical inspiration. Kaczynski’s growing digital presence in extreme far-right subcultures and on video-sharing platforms like TikTok highlights a growing popularity for extremist ideologies and violent individuals who are perceived to be advocates for the environment.
Practices: Content Creation and Aesthetics
Fans are not just consumers – they are producers of culture and knowledge. For instance, they interact with each other and produce fan art and fan fiction and organise fan conventions. In dialogues in online spaces such as Discord, in-groups are created through the exchange of esoteric knowledge and theories within the purview of the fandom.
It is also worth noting that fan behaviour combines personal celebrity adoration with collective action, which can sometimes be explicitly political. The ensuing collective identities sometimes express themselves in surprising ways. In the summer of 2020, ‘K-Pop stans’ (fans of Korean pop stars) mobilised through social media to support #BlackLivesMatter and protest Donald Trump’s presidency by buying up tickets to a Trump rally in Oklahoma and not attending.
The Columbine fandom has long been popular on Tumblr and in various gaming spaces, such as Minecraft and Roblox, the latter of which enables fans to create their own pages and live-action games, each with their own aesthetics, and provides a space for fans to interact with each other. As well as consuming the various types of content that is available on the atrocity, fans have generated their own content, such as works of fan fiction, artwork and memes.
It was a meme that first connected Souvannarath with James Gamble, another of the planners of their foiled plot. She created an image of the shooters, posted it with the hashtag #columbine and Gamble responded. They messaged online and their shared love of Columbine escalated to planning a massacre.
Kaczynski has a growing digital presence in both far-right extremist subcultures and video-sharing platforms like TikTok. This highlights the growing popularity of extremist ideologies and violent individuals who are perceived to be advocates for the environment. Images of Kaczynski vary considerably on different platforms. Within far-right extremist subcultures, it has been noted that there is a prominent trend in the artwork of ‘Saint Ted’ to depict him wearing a skull ski mask, a feature common in ‘siege culture’. As part of the ‘Terrorgram’ Saint canon, Kaczynski’s birthday and bombing dates are noted as significant by this digital community.
Having an interest in and connection with a dark fandom or saint does not necessarily mean an individual is likely to engage in copycat violence. An understanding of the different degrees of positive identification with perpetrators – from empathy to idealisation to deification – is also vital to understand the subtle boundaries between non-violent fans and potential copycats.
There are a range of ways in which copycats come to replicate the violence of those they admire. Here, a distinction can be made between those who are inspired by the ideology and those who admire the operational elements of the original atrocity. Deeper engagement with tactics and operational considerations could be an indicator of more likely potential engagement with offline extremism. In Souvannarath’s foiled Valentine’s Day plot, she and her accomplices admired the shooters, wanted to replicate the impact of the Columbine shooting and also engaged with specific tactical planning.
Kaczynski’s presence is very popular within siege culture and militant accelerationism, specifically on Telegram channels such as ‘Terrorgram’, the term for a loosely connected network of militant accelerationists. However, fandoms related to Kaczynski exist across a variety of digital platforms and demonstrate varying levels of extremism, thus making the nature and extent of Kaczynski fans difficult to map. For example, Kaczynski fans have a strong presence on platforms like TikTok and Tumblr. As of March 2023, the hashtag ‘#tedkaczynski’ had been viewed 58.9 million times on TikTok, with most videos being edited montages of Kaczynski that praise his work and label him a true eco-terrorist. The breadth of visibility for Kaczynski memes makes it very difficult to gauge the widespread demographics of the apparent fanbase.
When looking at cases of copycat violence perpetrated by those previously active in dark fandom milieus, it is important to consider 1) whether the fan is personally drawn to the perpetrator; 2) if the fan shares the perpetrator’s beliefs; and/or 3) if the fan condones the perpetrator’s actions. In the case of Souvannarath, for example, there was a recognisable conversion process involving her self-identity, her transformed worldview and her identification with a new community found within the online fandom environment. She also displayed other indicators of violence such as personal identification with the perpetration, a shared political vision as well as condoning violent actions. This was also the case with Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter.
Even when these factors are present, however, it does not necessarily mean a fan will perpetrate violence. It is also difficult to assess whether it was the fandom that was the cause of the violence or whether the individual was already determined to act before they joined a community. While more research needs to be carried out to explore these questions, the distinctions outlined above help our understanding of how incidents of mass violence may or may not be replicated.