Politics & Policy

What We Can, and Can’t, Glean from the Dayton Shooter’s Online Behavior

Officials investigate the scene after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, August 4, 2019. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)
Mass shooters' online behavior should not be used to score cheap political points, but it can be studied.

We don’t yet know the motive that animated the shooter who opened fire early Sunday morning in Dayton, Ohio, leaving nine victims including his own sister dead and nearly 30 more wounded. A day earlier, a mass shooter killed 20 people and injured dozens more in El Paso, Texas, but he made his motivation clear minutes before his attack, posting a manifesto on 8chan announcing his “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

No manifesto or statement of purpose has surfaced from the Dayton shooter. His Twitter profile, which has since been suspended, is insufficient to establish a motive. But he left a footprint behind, both online and in the real world. He was highly active on Twitter, having “liked” more than 220,000 tweets in the time he had an account. He referred to himself as an atheist and a Satanist — and had a history, former classmates say, of making violent threats. “He loved to look at you and pretend to shoot with guns, guns with his hands,” a female student, who once turned the shooter down for a date, told CNN.

And, per a report from Heavy early Monday morning, the gunman “was a self-described ‘leftist,’ who wrote that he would happily vote for Democrat Elizabeth Warren, praised Satan, was upset about the 2016 presidential election results, and added, ‘I want socialism, and i’ll not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding.’”

Just before last year’s midterm elections, he tweeted “Vote blue for gods sake,” and more recently shared an article criticizing establishment Democrats such as House speaker Nancy Pelosi for not supporting progressive freshmen congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, along with the message “read it.”

In a dark bit of irony, the gunman once tweeted, “This is America: Guns on every corner, guns in every house, no freedom but that to kill.” He criticized Ohio’s Republican senator Rob Portman for not doing enough to stop gun violence in the wake of the February 2018 Parkland shooting. And he made violent threats not simply at school but online: “Kill every fascist,” he tweeted in response to a BuzzFeed story about 2017’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

None of this is to suggest that the shooter’s left-wing sympathies explicitly motivated his massacre, or that the trendy Twitter accounts he followed and the Democratic politicians he supported were in any way culpable for what he did. He was a madman, and only he is personally responsible for his decision to slaughter innocents.

But there is an unsettling asymmetry in the way some commentators are attributing culpability.

Several Democratic presidential front-runners, for instance, have gone farther than merely criticizing President Trump’s rhetoric about illegal immigration and have accused him of “causing” or being “responsible” for the shooting in El Paso. In Slate, Tom Scocca has insinuated that center-right writers such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — who described Trump supporters’ opposition to current immigration levels as a legitimate political issue — somehow caused the El Paso shooter to launch his violent spree.

Such critics thus far have been less inclined to inquire about the political beliefs of the Dayton shooter. This is understandable insofar as investigators haven’t determined that his penchant for violence and the killing spree in which it culminated sprung from his politics. This particular gunman was, of course, deeply mentally disturbed: Four former students at his high school said he’d kept a “hit list” of classmates he wanted to kill or harm, reportedly with a separate column of girls he wanted to rape. Yet every mass shooter is in some sense deeply disturbed, and it’s not as if Trump is the only figure who has been glib about political violence.

The rush to attribute responsibility for mass atrocities to one’s political opponents is deeply grotesque. The online world the Dayton shooter inhabited is notable not primarily for its political valence, but for its distorted folkways and the sway it seems to have exerted over his psychology. On both 8chan and parts of Twitter, “sh**posting” — a means of ironically airing extreme positions on serious issues — is a common mode of communication, used by those on both poles of the political spectrum. The most active users of these sites tend to resemble addicts who become decreasingly able to make connections in the real world and use the Internet as a substitute. Studying the Dayton killer’s online behavior and learning about the opinions expressed by those he took seriously are vital to understanding his terrible crime. But the results should not be used to score cheap political points. The stakes are far too high for that.

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