Mass Killing and Technology: The Hidden Links May 1, 2018 By Mary Aiken

This blog post originally appeared on Debugged, a Wilson Center Blog from the Digital Futures Project. 

Massacres were once a rare thing — isolated events, witnessed only by a few and hardly ever captured on film. The world learned about them days or weeks later, sometimes years.

Shootings, rampages and mass killings in Santa Barbara; Munich; Baton Rouge; Sutherland Springs; Las Vegas; Parkland, Florida; San Bruno, California; and now Toronto reveal a troubling trend. In a bizarre behavioral epidemic, we’re seeing an amplification of this form of violence. It’s something that professionals in my field are becoming all too familiar with; 2017 was the worst year for mass killings in the US, and 2018 seems to be following a similar pattern — earlier this month an extremely worrying statistic was reported “We’re only 16 weeks into 2018, and there have already been 20 school shootings where someone was hurt or killed. That averages out to 1.25 shootings a week.

The Internet has given us connectivity, online community, access to information and countless other benefits. But, in many ways it is wreaking havoc on human behavior, pushing rapid changes in societal norms that social and behavioral scientists are only beginning to understand.

As a cyberpsychologist who specializes in criminal behavior, I have been involved in a dozen research silos related to these changes — from cyberstalking to organized cybercrime — and the single irrefutable fact I’ve observed is that whenever technology interfaces with a base human tendency, the result is amplification and acceleration of that tendency. We all experience the negative psychological impacts of the online experience, from smartphone addictive type behaviors, to having our attention hijacked by commercial enterprises that seek to profile, micro-target and monetize us online. For deeply troubled individuals and the mentally ill, however, the effects can be far more problematic.

The technology of cyberspace was designed to be rewarding, engaging and seductive for “normal” population, that is, most of us. What we failed as a society to foresee was how it would impact criminal, deviant, abnormal and vulnerable populations.

The Isla Vista rampage near UC Santa Barbara was all over in less than ten minutes; six victims were dead and 13 wounded. A young man, Elliot Rodger, was found slumped at the wheel of a BMW, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head, three semiautomatic handguns and over 400 rounds of ammunition by his side. Rodger’s laptop search history revealed his profoundly disturbed digital exhaust, frenzied search of Nazis, weapons, knives and torture devices. Rodgers had found an outlet for his anger on Internet communities, leading to his family contacting police weeks before the shootings out of concern about his increasingly agitated online rants. Notably one of his comments on stated that he had discovered a community “just like me” who have “confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are”. Rodgers detailed his mass murder plot in an unnerving manifesto along with a delusional video directed at an audience somewhere in cyberspace — was he talking to relatives of his victims? Or was he talking to like-minded profoundly disturbed individuals, aiming to incite similar acts of violence? When news of the killings spread some users actually posted adulatory comments to his online profile.

Nearly four years later, on the 23rd April 2018, in a disturbing copycat crime that has been described as an act of “pure carnage,” Alek Minassian drove a white rental van onto a busy Toronto sidewalk, killing 8 Women, 2 men, and injuring 15 people. It has been reported that shortly before the attack Minassian made a series of ominous posts on Facebook “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!”… “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” The so-called “incel” movement is an online community of ‘involuntary celibate’ misogynists united in their desire to target and terrorize women. Twenty-four hours after the atrocity a picture of a makeshift shrine to Minassian was posted on praising him as “A warrior of incelibacy.”

Mass killings are not just confined to North America, Ali Sonboly the shooter in the July 2016, Munich massacre, was a depressed 18-year-old who routinely issued death threats to his friends on multi-player video games sites. He killed nine people and injured several more before turning his weapon on himself — a gun obtained on a Dark Net market.

Gavin Long, the 29-year old killer of three police officers in Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016, left behind an online trail to web pages that fed his rage regarding the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. Self-described as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said “You gotta fight back,” in a video just a week before his killing rampage.

On the 5th of November, 2017, Devin Kelley who served in the Air Force, dressed in tactical gear, including a ballistic vest, targeted the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and opened fire with a Ruger AR assault-type rifle killing 26 people and wounding at least 20 others. Authorities examined posts Kelley reportedly made on social media in the days leading up to the shooting, including one that appeared to feature an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle apparently with the caption: “she’s a bad b****”. It would be interesting to know how many likes that post received, given the role online affirmation has in reinforcing human behavior.

In the deadliest shooting in modern American history, Stephen Paddock killed 58, and injured more than 800. He fired over 1000 bullets, from his hotel window into a crowd of 22,000 people who were attending the October 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. The subsequent FBI investigation reported that “Paddock planned the attack meticulously and took many methodical steps to avoid detection of his plot and to thwart the eventual law enforcement investigation that would follow,” Clearly planned, premeditated, organized and notably cognizant of his digital exhaust, investigators reported how Mr. Paddock had “destroyed or tried to hide digital media devices.”

As classes drew to a close on February 14, 2018 a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Over six minutes seventeen students and teachers were killed, and fourteen were taken to hospitals. The suspected perpetrator, 19-year-old Nikolas Jacob Cruz, was arrested shortly afterward. Cruz’s social media posts paint a very disturbing picture. It has been reported that Cruz’s digital profile contains troubling content that includes a variety of gun and violence-related posts on social media. A user going by the name of Nikolas Cruz also included slurs against blacks and Muslims in his posts. A law enforcement source said authorities were aware of Cruz’s extremist views on social media. Cruz’s disturbing behavior also included several threatening and retrospectively predictive comments under his online videos. They include:

“I whana shoot people with my AR-15”

“I wanna die Fighting killing s**t ton of people”

It was reported that YouTube user going by the name Nikolas Cruz posted a comment to a vlogger’s YouTube page, saying, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

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To book Dr. Mary Aiken to speak at your next conference, email [email protected] or call  + 353 1 2354905.