Earlier this year we completed a yearlong survey and analysis of troll propaganda coupled with online radicalization--and the growth of terrorist communities. That research was published in the U.S. Army cyber defense review and includes a conversation that Spans from ISIS, to white supremacists and the newer left-wing radical groups, including ANTIFA.
While ISIS was on a decline, in terms of their global physical presence, we saw a significant uptick in their recruiting --both online and on the dark web. In the middle of this-- ISIS came to the international spotlight by changing the nature of recruitment and how terrorism was conducted. On a parallel path-- we saw the movement from White Supremacist organizations, like Stormfront, that copycatted not only ISIS’s online engagement strategy but fundraising through Bitcoin.
ANTIFA’s rise also became enmeshed in ISIS’s web, as ANTIFA leaders met with ISIS in London to discuss recruiting methods and to plot attacks on President Trump and G20 events.
While on opposite sides of the ideological coin – White Supremacist / Alt Right (WS/AR) and Left Extremist/ ANTIFA (LE/ANTIFA) groups both found common communication ground on platforms like Reddit, 4chan, the now defunct 8chan, as well as private channels on messenger platforms including WhatsApp, Discord, Telegram and Signal.
Meme and internet subculture played a large role in the proliferation of ideas – as lower Millennial and Gen Z’ers find the same “punk rock” catalysts of ISIS recruiting in WS and LE idea sharing. The echo chambers that get created allow for two problems to fester.
Firstly, that the rhetoric and community created is seductive and hard to leave. Secondly, that academics generally misunderstand the true nature of trolling and troll culture – as clearly evident in this Harvard Politics piece that assumes the remove kebab meme is analogous to ideological shaping – when in reality, it’s part of a layered troll of layered memes simply supporting people who have already fermented their anger and tied it to an ideology – whether WS or LE.
The Manifesto of the Christchurch shooter was the ultimate troll – a combination of memes, popular reddit commentary and sh*tposts woven into a “manifesto” that was little more than a finger to Muslims and the establishment in New Zealand.
A quick review of the Meme rise and fall of Belle Delphine should give you an idea of how you can’t fully grasp meme culture, unless you’re in it. Academics are failing at this.
Similarly, the conflict of ideologies between extreme right and extreme left, online, has led to echo chambers where we now have a proliferation of WS conversations that fear Migrant Gangs and Migrants, as well as LE conversations advocating socialism, socialist upheaval and anarchy. In 2018, the only thing missing was guns. By 2019, groups and individuals had begun arming themselves.
Our research last year identified that from WS to LE groups – there was a growing trend of cross contact with ISIS and cross-dialogue where further idea sharing occurred. Publicly available papers support the notion of cross dialogue.
However it’s more important to underscore that what WS and LE groups are doing is waging a new type of propaganda and ideological war online.
This new war is one that ISIS pioneered – and one that WS and LE groups demonstrated this week in both El Paso and Dayton – that of a new breed of “lone wolf” one that we have coined the “Laughing Man”.
The Laughing Man generally lives in our communities but illustrates their worldview and ire in online posts on popular platforms like Twitter and Instagram. They also fit a type – El Paso was a WS shooter who hated migrants and reportedly supported Trump. Dayton was an LE shooter who advocated Socialism and supported Elizabeth Warren.
Mental Health issues may have played a role in both cases and a general societal malaise egged on by meme culture within their echo chambers gave them the gumption to carry out heinous acts.
Both of these killers existed on the fringe, in plain sight. To prevent this from happening again – we need to take a page out of the books of American Muslim communities – who reduced their terror threats through community engagement – or operational counterterrorism and couple it with sensible background check policy.
But, in an America where instafame means thousands of followers, but you still don’t know your neighbor’s name—we may have to turn back to building communities and investing in community policing, police auxiliaries, interfaith organizations and secular groups that have the mettle to address this culture war – if we’re going to stop mass shootings for good.