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Experts say the digital footprint of the Highland Park suspect fits into a new trend

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New details are emerging about the suspect in the deadly mass shooting at a July Fourth parade in Highland Park, Ill. In April of 2019, local authorities interacted with him and his parents after he apparently attempted suicide. Five months later, police confiscated knives, a dagger and a sword after he reportedly threatened to kill his family. We also know that Robert Crimo III posted memes, photos, videos and music on multiple platforms. Extremism researchers say his digital footprint fits into a new and emerging extremist profile. For more on that, we're joined now by NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So I know that you have been looking through this online footprint. Can you just first describe what have you found?

YOUSEF: Well, what's most striking about it, Ailsa, is the violence and the gore that appear throughout. In one music video posted last year, there's a cartoon figure that appears to be him involved in a bloody armed confrontation with law enforcement. He's depicted with a long gun, which is also the type of weapon allegedly used in yesterday's deadly attack. But, Ailsa, there isn't a clear political message to read into his online presence. And we cannot say that he was affiliated with any known extremist group or ideology. You know, what I found really was kind of a dark, stylized mishmash of various online subcultures with themes of violence, nihilism and a kind of blurring of what's real and what's not.

CHANG: A blurring of what's real and what's not - what do you mean by that?

YOUSEF: So this is exactly that emerging area of violent extremism that you mentioned. It revolves around communities that come together over collaborative fiction, lore and alternate reality games. These communities most often start on the website 4chan, but then they migrate to other deep parts of the Web and can be quite immersive. Alex Newhouse is at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and he's at the cutting edge of researching this.

ALEX NEWHOUSE: The idea is that everyone within these communities sort of lose track of what is real and what is fake, and they start fantasizing about and fetishizing violence as sort of this end all, be all of, like, the essence of existing rather than any sort of, like, ideological or political aim wrapped around that.

YOUSEF: So Newhouse says these communities are kind of fashioned to destroy a person's sense of identity and to detach them from any grounding in reality. And Newhouse goes so far as to call the phenomenon a sort of mass shooter creation machine.

CHANG: So has he seen this pattern in, like, other recent mass shootings?

YOUSEF: Well, Newhouse says recently he's seen it in the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a school shooting in Oxford, Mich. So that would make it three in the last year. That in itself is concerning, but it's also concerning because the online milieu that gives rise to this violence is designed to be super viral. You know, it uses memes that are billed as jokes or ironic but which ultimately numb people to violence. And it has a unique aesthetic designed to appeal to young people. And, you know, users often engage with content for hours, which Newhouse says is designed to actually change their brain chemistry.

CHANG: Wow. So, I mean, Odette, what can be done to prevent this kind of extremist violence, you think?

YOUSEF: Well, Newhouse says it would take lots of information sharing between tech companies, experts and journalists who can flag items for content moderation. But even with that, it'll be challenging.

NEWHOUSE: Where is the line between someone engaging with an alternate reality game and then suddenly getting detached from time and space and wanting to commit violence? And that's still - like, we're still at the very, very, very nascent stages of that.

YOUSEF: Newhouse says these kind of dark online milieus have really taken off in the last two or three years, and those most at risk appear to be 13- to 24-year-olds.

CHANG: That is NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you so much, Odette.

YOUSEF: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
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