Something has gone very wrong with the internet. There now exists the clearest evidence yet that the darkest parts of internet culture might be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. An entire generation has shared in the social development of the web–that generation needs to begin reforming the online world they have created.
A subculture of women-hating
In the recent Santa Barbara killings, misogyny seems to have played a central part. The question remains, however: how did women-hating burst out into extreme violence like this, in the person of a young suburban man? More broadly, how do extreme social pathologies survive in our civil society? And where?
Forums like The Red Pill are visited by thousands of men every day
Online communities seem to be part of the answer. PUAHate, Bodybuilding.com and the /r/TheRedPill forum on Reddit are online forums patronized by the killer. These sites, and similar hangouts, form an underworld of lonely internet users, mostly males in their twenties, who have built up for themselves a dangerous, misogynistic mythology.
Dragged out into the open, the degeneracy of their exchanges is laid bare.
“There is something mentally wrong with the way [women’s] brains are wired … they are incapable of reason or thinking rationally,” the killer was reported to say. With others, he talked about committing violent acts against women. In his case, the violence became real.
While the Santa Barbara killing spree is beyond tragic, a more recent act of web-inspired violence in Wisconsin, this one committed by preteens, is in some ways even more terrifying.
Online horror cults
Last Saturday, a 12 year-old girl was found by a cyclist at the edge of a park, alive but in desperate condition, having been stabbed 19 times. Two of her classmates, also 12, admitted to the attack, which took place after a sleepover. The girls had planned for months to murder their friend as a way to attract the attention of Slenderman, a popular paranormal monster in the “creepypasta” online subculture.
Doctored images like this one, featuring Slenderman, are popular on forums visited by the young Wisconsin attackers
Dozens of questions come to mind. How do young girls get to the point of attempting ritualistic murder? How do preteens, or anyone, find themselves caught up in cult worship of fictitious bogeymen?
The answer again lies online. Hundreds of thousands of internet users are involved in the Creepypasta Wiki, /r/Creepy and /r/NoSleep subreddits on Reddit and dozens of similar forums, where contributors trade literary and graphical depictions of the truly disturbing, in order to find a fearful pleasure in what seems to have become a pornography of horror.
The NoSleep subreddit asks for original, believable content on its homepage: “Remember: everything is true here, even if it’s not. Stories should be believable, but realistic fiction is permitted. Readers are to assume everything is true and treat it as such.”
This is the sort of community in which the Wisconsin middle school killers found themselves involved: an underground bazaar of realistic stories and well-doctored images of Slenderman and other dark figures, designed to provoke a genuine sense of fear.
Imagine a preteen watching horror films alone every night, each about the same eerie monster, without a parent to give comfort or context. Is it a stretch to think the child would start to believe what they were seeing? What is different about what is occurring in online communities?
But the problem is even broader than misogyny or horror: anonymous online communities have become havens for every kind of dangerous thinking.
There aren’t just atheist and religious thinkers on the internet; there are forums for people who bully religious people, or for young Muslims who learn to despise Western society. More than just pornographers, there exist fetishistic porn cults. Beyond racial prejudice, there are blogs and meme-dumps full of appalling hostility toward racial minorities; and “social justice warriors” on Tumblr who spend their online lives hurling screeds at “cishet” (cisgender heterosexual) white males. Teenage girls struggling with anorexia looking for help online will likely find the “pro-ana” underworld, which instead of giving healthy advice will tell youths how to hide their condition from their families.
With the help of coaching on internet forums, an awkward twenty-two year-old from California, who probably needed counselling or a role model, began to identify himself as an “incel” (involuntary celibate), an unappreciated “alpha male”, and a victim of female irrationality. Mental illness and chauvinism can’t fully explain his subsequent crimes: the internet seemed to play a crucial role in radicalizing his worldview.
Of course, radical subcultures are a minority of the world’s internet users. Furthermore, killers will come from an even smaller, usually mentally vulnerable subset. But these minorities are still large. More than 50,000 people subscribe to “The Red Pill” and almost half a million to “No Sleep”. It’s plausible that more acts of physical or emotional violence will come out of this cultural cesspool.
Millennials need to reform the internet
In order to mitigate the excesses of internet culture, the web should be shaped into a more mainstream medium. Violence and extremism online will never be stamped out, but they can be pushed to smaller, less accessible fringes of the web. Whatever legitimacy they claim can be taken away.
Perhaps reddit.com and other sites could be pressured to close off their darker corners—this has happened once before, when Reddit took down an extremely popular “jailbait”, or clothed child pornography, subreddit. ISPs could be asked to prioritize bandwidth away from sites where there is discussion of illegal activities.
The anonymous, decentralized internet has enabled the creation of unprecedented types of communities, and unprecedented sets of regulations might be required to deal with them. We wouldn’t tolerate nightly meetings of thousands of radical women-haters or Slenderman worshipers in our cities, and we shouldn’t tolerate it on our networks.
Changes to internet culture are unlikely to happen, however, while there exists a silent generational gap. When the parents of Millennials think of the internet, they think of Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. When Millennials think of the internet, they’re also picturing Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, and thousands of smaller sites which cater to particular flavors of extremism.
To save the millions of young people who are engaged in, or who are susceptible to engagement in online subcultures, the older generation needs to become fully aware of these communities. The younger generation, of which I am a part, needs to begin taking responsibility for the cultural wasteland it has created.