Antisocial Networking Kills, Again

The latest mass shooting in the USA emphasises that this form of violence is not just a gun issue or a mental health problem but is tightly linked to radicalisation by the extreme right-wing and conspiracy movements. In this piece we highlight the disconcerting ubiquity of conspiracy movements. The two current authors are unfortunate enough to have extended first hand experience with this underbelly of the internet.


The Oregon college shootings

When we first hear there has been another college shooting in Oregon, we make the assumption, perhaps unjustly, that the gunman will be a young, male conspiracy theorist. Oregon is both a very liberal state and home to more than its share of right-wing fringe groups. Within thirty minutes, information surfaces corroborating our assumption.

This time the shooting occurs at Umpqua Community College, 175 km south of Portland Oregon. Chris Harper Mercer has killed nine of his peers and himself, and needless to say has instigated a media storm surrounding the crime. President Obama “did little to try to hide the anger and frustration that have deepened … in the wake of a deadly mass shooting”. In the numerous press releases coming from the White House and elsewhere, the focus is yet again on gun control.

Mental health, and a peripheral nod to the extreme right and conspiracy groups filter in and out of reports in a subsidiary manner: Mercer watches ‘Illuminati’ videos and conspiracy theory videos about other massacres. But, media coverage of these events tends to minimise the deep connection of many of the shooters, and the apocalyptic violence of their acts, to the fundamental anarchism and hatred of conspiracy movements. The corresponding mental health gun control debate is ongoing. In August Donald Trump asserted “Mental health, not gun problem”. Even the right is happy to blame crazy people as long as we do not take away their guns. A fine article in the New York “How They Got Their Guns” noted that

“[c]riminal histories and documented mental health problems did not prevent at least eight of the gunmen in 14 recent mass shootings from obtaining their weapons”.

This includes the most recent Oregon mass shooting. More than a very real gun problem, or a serious mental health problem, the shooting is also a conspiracy network problem.


The role of conspiracy

Conspiracy theories range from well known — 911 denial, the Birther Truther movement, the Illuminati, and the New World Order — to more arcane ones you may never have heard of: project paperclip, HAARP, The Montauk Project, etc.  . The danger of conspiracy movements lies in their increasing (and obfuscated) infiltration of the mainstream.

This happens through a series of coercive and inclusive mechanisms that allow the outsider (or gunman) to feel ‘in on a secret’ and simultaneously relevant, acknowledged, and special — often for a modest but non-trivial membership fee. ($250 per annum paid by a few thousand avid followers is a nice little ‘off the books’ income. Add also the donations many graciously accept because “There’s a war on for your mind!”). This form of inclusion is practiced by many conspiracy figures. Yet the impact socially is complicated by a host of political and economic motives. While not all conspiracy movements are right-wing (notably vaccine and smart meter concerns) the large majority are.

Through a set of unfortunate incidents we have had the opportunity to observe first-hand the private workings of a prominent American conspiracy theorist, former doctor Mr Bill Deagle. (See The Prophet in Clayton Park, 2007). It is a glimpse into an incredibly deranged and anarchistic world galvanised by ego, fanaticism, conman artistry, and simple greed.

This is a movement that would like nothing better than to see the reigning social order turned upside down, and its spokesmen crowned kings. Some of these leaders are deranged, while others are cynical manipulators. But, either way, we are acutely aware of the warning signs of such an ideology, especially as practiced by its followers.

Over the past decade there have been many chillingly newsworthy shootings. These include Jared Lee Loughner who maimed congresswoman Giffords in a Safeway massacre, James Holmes who perpetrated the Aurora cinema bloodbath, the Sandy Hook killing of first graders by the avid and anti-social Ron Paul fan Adam Lanza.

Nor is the issue solely an American problem — though it is disproportionately so. The Masonic “extreme right-wing” Swede Anders Behring Breivik executed 85 youths on Utoya Island. Each time another shooting (bombing in the case of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) occurs, we do a fact check. Sure enough, the killer turns out to be linked with often-apocalyptic conspiracy theory. They read the same destructive rhetoric that Alex Jones, Bill Deagle, Jeff Rense, and others spout daily.


The growing legitimation of the fringe

Current levels of organisation of antisocial networks would be near impossible without the Internet. The net has served as an increasingly vital platform for the proliferation of violence and right-wing extremism of all kinds. Both ISIS and the Muslim brotherhood are sophisticated users of social media as an integral means of radicalisation. Witness the recent Sydney killing by `radicalised’ 15-year-old gunman Farad Jabar Khalil Mohammad. Yet, his apparent radicalisation in a mainstream Parramatta (Sydney) mosque assuredly has a significant online component.

And we wonder, why the media and the public don’t take the inherent social danger of conspiracy movements seriously enough. A recent article does ask the question “Do Hate Crimes Happen More Because of Broadband Internet Access?” and links it to Mercer’s recent atrocity through “digital traces” of the lone gunman. The article highlights the link between violence and online space. It intimates the radicalising effect of conspiracy movements that mimic other forms of radicalism.

Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer’s New York Times opinion piece “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat,” writes

“[a]s state and local police agencies remind us, right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America,”

and in the case of the conspiracy movements, right-wing, anti-government extremism is a significant source of ideological violence elsewhere.

Ten years ago when we were first made painfully aware of these movements they were less mainstream than they are now. That said, since 2001 there has been a large annual Conspiracy Con based out of California. This increased mainstream presence is directly correlated with the ability of groups to self organise online through antisocial media.

In the past, lone wolves were obviously isolated by their illness, and lacked mainstream means of proliferation. They were largely limited in how they coordinated, communicated, published and circulated. In recent years, dangerous kooks like the excellent showman Alex Jones garner guest spots on prime time Fox and CNN political shows and are featured in Forbes business 2013. “Who is Alex Jones?” Jeff Bercovici asks noting

Syndicated radio host Alex Jones has moved from the fringe to center stage, at least temporarily, following a spittle-flecked appearance on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight”.

After exchanging pleasantries with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, a once isolated voice is gaining massive audiences comprised of far too many under-educated and/or naïve individuals.

Economic and political motivations complicate the situation. The relationship of economy and politics to conspiracy movements in the mainstream plays out within the Republican right-wing. The angry incoherence of the tea party is driven by business and special interest groups that are supportive of anything that breaks down belief in government and public commonwealth.

In his 2012 election campaign, Mitt Romney pandered to the extreme right-winger ‘libertarian’ Ron Paul without the legitimate right ever calling his tune. He wanted Ron’s membership lists and votes. Four years later, his son Rand Paul has publicly managed to  limit those connections. On another level he does not want to alienate a single one of the people who financially underwrote his father — voters who are happy with more conspiratorial anti-Semitic, gold standard views.

But what mind-set is prevalent in the conspiracy world? This begs the question of how and “Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories” as described in Scientific American

“Conspiracy theories offer easy answers by casting the world as simpler and more predictable than it is. Their popularity may pose a threat to societal well-being”.

There is also a great deal of evidence that belief in any one conspiracy or contrarian theory substantially increases the likelihood of belief in another. (See also Lewandowsky et al “The Robust Relationship Between Conspiracism and Denial of (Climate) Science” 2012/14). And so big oil, big coal, big tobacco, big pharma, climate change deniers and creationists find themselves sometimes oddly co-aligned.

Alex Jones and others link the actions of Mercer, in part, to big pharma. They connect Mercer through his online handle ‘lithium love’ to the scientology-laden view that psychiatric medication is a form of government ‘mind control’. It is also a sly side-ways nod to Jones’ friends in ‘high’ places: Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, etc.

Such misguided people should read more. Some primary suggestions are as follows: Shorter’s A History of Psychiatry, MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, Staub’s Madness is Civilization, and Foucault’s seminal Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. A healthy dose of Durkheim and Talcott Parsons alongside Reitman’s Inside Scientology would make all but the most confused reader reconsider their attributions and causalities.

Chris Harper Mercer is just one of many, disillusioned, fatalistic outsiders lashing out at the system that they cannot function within. Yet the significant criminality of conspiracy movements is the ability to agitate already unstable people to undertake anarchistic and gruesome acts simply with words and images. Then paradoxically, movements use these events to further the conspiratorial mythology of their rhetoric. It is nothing short of a crime. From Harris and Klebold — the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre 1999 — to Seung-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech carnage circa 2007, these sad young men (usually) are now part of the unstable mythology of the fringe—the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was coined in 1967. The erstwhile mainstream syndicated Alex Jones states “Seung-Hui Cho Was a Mind Controlled Assassin”. Yet it appears to the two of us, as educated consumers, that the people doing the “mind control” are none other than the leading figures of conspiracy movements themselves.


Why and what to do?

The growing presence of conspiracy movements in the mainstream is indicative of alienation, inadequate educational levels, and socio-economic hardship. It is also indicative of a naturalistic modern outlook– Obama’s reflection that Americans have become numb. Increased gun control in and of itself will not stop these violent incidents. Though, it will assuredly mitigate them.

Australia, America, Canada, France, the UK, and elsewhere must continue to think laterally about ways to legislate against growing sedition on the Internet — the virtual Wild West that is a far cry from the liberated WWW that Tim Berners-Lee originally intended. Instead we have a world that is increasingly antagonistic of scholarship and intellectualism.

Online,in sheer quantity pornography, subversive material, gaming, and social media totally eclipse serious material. In the wrong hands, the Internet has too often become a toxic space, where conspiracy movements, and anti-government and extreme right-wing agendas collide. Those who go on shock radio and agitate, feed, taunt, and augment social unrest catalyse vulnerable, angry and alienated individuals to act for them.

Then they make money off of it by spreading fear and sensationalism. Most conspiracy leaders are dangerous people who should be shunned and shamed. Many sell dubious under-regulated products that the FDA should ban.

As right-wing conspiracy movements enter further into the mainstream, they are increasingly propelling violent acts of mayhem at the hands of disturbed and disgruntled youths on the periphery of society. In the USA, first amendment rights make it difficult — perhaps rightly – to deal with this if treated only as a free speech issue. Guns must be better regulated as they are in Canada, Britain and Australia. But the problem is so much more complicated than a one-vote one-issue mentality allows people to grasp. It is ironic that that one-issue mentality is also symptomatic of how people become duped by a gamut of conspiracy theories.


Naomi Borwein, PhD Candidate, Newcastle


Laureate Prof Jonathan Borwein, Newcastle




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