This week, reporters dredged up the online pasts of two monsters: a Florida man who was arrested for sending pipe bombs to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics, and a neo-Nazi sympathizer who opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshipers on Saturday morning. In both instances, their digital footprints offered all the expected clues — the internet profile of a modern extremist, teeming with all-caps memes; hundreds of breathless, almost frantic tweets, likes, and shares of violent fantasies; and hateful ideologies repeated over and over again, sometimes to an audience of seemingly no one.
Scrolling through these internet histories, what’s remarkable isn’t the roiling hatred — tragically, that’s become almost commonplace online. But what’s truly alarming is how familiar the digital trail left behind by these dark extremists feels. The violent errata left by these domestic terrorists aren’t inaccessible, hundred-page, hand-scrawled manifestos or garages filled with red string and corkboards; instead, they're Facebook posts and tweets and enthusiastic online trolling, the likes of which many of us come in contact with on a daily basis. And it’s that familiarity — just one turn of the screw more extreme than a normal shitpost — that makes a tour of their digital pasts so upsetting.
Connecting the online footprints to tragedies in the physical world also reveals an undeniable truth: that the dichotomy between an online world and “real life” is (and has always been) a false one. The hatred, trolling, harassment, and conspiracy theorizing of the internet’s underbelly cannot be dismissed as empty, nihilistic performance. It may be a game, but it’s a game with consequences. And it’s spilling into the physical world with greater, more alarming frequency.
Arguably, nothing better demonstrates the permeability of the online/IRL membrane better than the mail bombing suspect’s white van, which was discovered Friday afternoon after the suspect’s arrest. The van’s windows and rear doors were covered in pro-Trump stickers and memes from online message boards — a sort of twisted paint job brought to you by 4chan. Some depicted Donald Trump riding triumphantly on a tank, while others depicted media figures and Democratic politicians with targets over their faces. Had the images been posted to a Twitter feed instead of onto a car window, they would have been the hallmark of an individual said to be “extremely online.”
The van is, according to Kate Starbird, a researcher studying online conspiracies and misinformation at the University of Washington, an interesting metaphor “showing memetic warfare transcending the digital and moving into the physical world.”
“It’s powerful in a way that shows he was clearly radicalized in an online world,” Starbird told BuzzFeed News. “It’s almost copied and pasted from the internet and put into the physical world.” For Starbird, it’s also anecdotal evidence of the effect of radicalizing propaganda and online communities. “It’s not just receiving messages, it’s also actions and participations. You’re part of something in this online world and I think you’re seeing more individuals internalizing that and using it to motivate action in the physical world.”
Trolling that’s long been dismissed as empty ravings — the harassing tweet that wasn’t taken down, the anti-Semitic cartoon memes floating around online communities like Gab.com, the pizza parlor sex ring YouTube videos — are proving to be veritable red flags. And the actions of the individuals behind them are showing up in the real world.
In 2016, after reading about the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina fired three shots in a Washington, DC, pizza parlor. Believers of the 4chan QAnon conspiracy — convinced the president is secretly trying to save the world from a global pedophilia ring — have begun showing up at Trump rallies clad in “Q” T-shirts. In 2017, Lane Davis, a far-right, pro-Trump blogger apparently convinced his parents were “leftist pedophiles,” stabbed his father. In April, a young man who’d pledged allegiance on Facebook to the “Incel Rebellion”— a name for an online community dedicated to involuntary celibacy and misogyny — killed 10 people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto. Members of the Proud Boys, a community of “western chauvinists” largely formed online, were arrested in October for assaulting bystanders on a New York City sidewalk. Similarly, the hundreds of white Americans chanting “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017 saw the event as a chance to break down the walls between their online extremism and real-world activism. During the deadly protest, Daily Stormer features editor Robert Ray described the rally to Vice News as white nationalists "stepping off the internet in a big way."
While extremists “stepping off the internet” is a symptom of an online ecosystem with an uncanny ability to quickly radicalize vulnerable participants, the phenomenon is not fully platform-dependent. Online communities have helped turn information warfare into a tribal game, and many are finding they can play the game IRL, too.
“I almost feel like QAnon has the most in common with something like Pokémon Go,” my colleague Ryan Broderick told me this summer, describing how the message board conspiracy had bled into the physical world. “It's like an augmented reality game, and people are gonna play it regardless of where they're going, you know, regardless of how it works. They're going to keep doing it because I think at the end of the day, it's fun for people.”
It’s also empowering. If memetic and information warfare are a game, that means you can win. And winning can translate into something that feels like real power. The claim that 4chan “memed a president into existence” isn’t just a catchphrase; it’s a line on a résumé.
And while there’s a meaningful difference between the Pizzagate conspiracy and the anti-Semitic rage of the alleged Pittsburgh gunman, the reasons they transcend the internet are familiar: community and empowerment. It comes as little surprise then that the final social media post from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter declared that he was taking his online hatred into the physical world. “I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in,” he wrote just hours before his massacre.
Of course, few of these posts are such explicit calls to action — in fact, much of the online footprint of the week’s extremists are mundane, lazy examples of bigotry, or even anodyne bits of social media fodder. It’s only under a microscope with hindsight that the pattern of radicalization appears so clearly. “The red pill doesn’t happen all at once,” Starbird said of the trivial nature of so many trolls’ online histories. “You go down the rabbit hole; you don’t start at the bottom. But it can lead to this corrupted way of making meaning of the world.”
It’s likely that those who came in contact with an errant post from one of the two suspects were appalled or disturbed for a moment but quickly moved on. It’s outlying behavior, yes, but the medium is eerily recognizable. Rifling through their old posts now, there’s an implicit question: Would you have alerted someone if you read these rantings? On an online world that’s normalized ironic racism and shock trolling, it’s impossible to tell exactly who is a threat and who is just trolling. Perhaps the distinction is now irrelevant. Perhaps it always has been.