We call them warning signs, but we only seem to see them too late.
Before he murdered 10 people in Toronto with his car, Alek Minassian warned on Facebook of an “incel rebellion.” Before he shot to death 11 Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers announced his actions on the social network Gab: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Before he killed two women in a Florida yoga studio, Scott Beierle ranted about women and minorities in a series of YouTube videos.
In the weeks following the Tree of Life slayings, and after years of disinterest from law enforcement and the media, the dangers posed by far-right extremists have finally come to the fore of national attention. Much of the discussion has centered on chaotic digital spaces like Gab, where Bowers left a history of anti-Semitic posts. These are disturbing communities, where the culture war’s right-wing vanguard gather, and, we are told, hateful people radicalize into dangerous ones. The question here, one of the signal questions of the Trump age, is: Does hateful rhetoric lead to violence?
Who is the kind of person for whom saturation in far-right words and ideas poses an urgent risk — and who isn’t?
It’s a very good question for cable news, because it can be argued over tendentiously forever and never really answered. It’s also woefully simplistic. Of course hateful rhetoric can lead to violence. Of course hateful rhetoric doesn’t always lead to violence. A monofocus on hateful words and the communities that allow and encourage them ignores the simple fact that the vast majority of people exposed to them will never murder anyone, and conversely, that plenty of potentially violent extremists don’t post publicly on the internet. A better question, from a public safety perspective: Who is the kind of person for whom saturation in far-right words and ideas poses an urgent risk — and who isn’t?
About a year ago, the wife of a source — I’ll call him Ted — messaged me through his Twitter account. “Would you be willing to speak with me?” she wrote. “Ted is not doing so well, and I'm trying to figure out what's been happening and how best to help him.”
For a few weeks, Ted had been sending dozens of messages a day. They careened, like a Twitter feed, from topic to topic: Donald Trump, the Mercer family, Jack Dorsey, Peter Thiel, 4chan, the tactics of ideological warfare on the internet, Ted’s family, Ted’s combination of medications, our brains scalding under an ever-hotter torrent of bad information, and Lane Davis, a rising star in the far-right media world who had just murdered his father in a spasm of conspiratorial rage. Some of what Ted wrote was true, some of it was opinion, and some of it was classic paranoia, like his claim that he was being followed by the CIA.
It seemed natural that Ted wanted to talk about Davis. They knew each other a little. Both had worked for the former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016, helping him to build on the chassis of Gamergate a culture war semi-truck the English grifter very nearly rode to GOP superstardom. Both were gifted information warriors, who processed and repackaged news into partisan ammunition at a daunting rate. Both saw patterns in the news faster than other people, and sometimes they saw patterns in the news when they weren’t really there. And both struggled with their mental health, in a sped-up, narrativizing way that seemed adaptive to their world of endless right-wing information churn.
Though I would go on to spend six months reporting on the Davis murder, I was familiar enough with both men at the time to see an analogous situation unfolding: An internet culture warrior in crisis, losing himself in the narratives he was so adept at creating, shoring up his fantasy with scraps of reality.
Ted’s wife said he was under observation in a psych ward in the Great Plains city where they lived with Ted’s dad. He had been telling the staff wild stories, but some of it was detailed and plausible enough to seem true. To treat him, it seemed necessary to figure out what was made-up and what wasn’t. Ted had instructed his wife to get in touch with me to confirm that I was real.
Ted was always insightful and curious, so much so that I felt a fair amount of cognitive dissonance when I considered the work he had once done for Yiannopoulos. But Lane Davis hadn’t set off my alarm bells either. After confirming that I existed, and that Ted and I had discussed his work for Yiannopoulos, I explained the Davis situation to Ted’s wife. I told her I was concerned that Ted could hurt himself or someone else. She thanked me and hung up.
Ted got out of the hospital a week after he was admitted, and he hasn’t hurt anyone or himself. We still talk. He’s living with his family and he’s largely left the internet culture wars behind. But he’s haunted by Lane Davis, by the sense that they are two different versions of the same person, by the idea that he might have done what Lane did. Recently, I asked him to walk me through his crisis, to try to figure out where he went right, and Lane went wrong.
In reporting out the series of events that led Lane Davis to stab his father to death, I came to believe that his path to violence was holistic, unique. To blame it solely on the far-right media, or toxic digital communities, or internet content production, or Lane’s hopeless job prospects, or his troubled family life, or his psychology, or structural hatred, would be insufficient, if not ridiculous. Those things all had to interact in the wrong way.
Ted was a keyboard warrior and so was Lane — at least until he wasn’t. There are signs, from the gun-stockpiling DC-based neo-Nazi Gab poster arrested earlier this month to a new social platform that aims to prepare online extremists for a violent insurgency, that the far-right culture war online is turning into something more consistently violent. Still, I was hoping Ted could help me understand — help us all understand — how some people come back.
After 9/11, preventing Islamist terrorism became the central aim of federal law enforcement in the United States. Driven to identify violent extremists before they acted, the FBI and state and local police departments embraced a heuristic for radicalization that researchers of violent extremism now recognize as fundamentally flawed. Sometimes called the “conveyor belt” theory, this model held that the pathway to homegrown terrorism consisted of a set of discrete steps, with signs that could be easily identified by investigators.
It’s an intuitive idea that holds an enormous amount of popular sway over the way Americans think about violent extremism, no matter what the ideology behind it. The now depressingly familiar media dissection of a right-wing extremist’s social media after an act of violence, looking for markers on an inevitable road, plays into it. Here’s where the killer posted hate. Here’s where the killer interacted with another radical. There’s something epidemiological about it all, as if we can locate the very moment a person becomes infected with extremism, becomes contagious, becomes terminal.
But for a theory about a direct line, conveyor belt theory never really goes anywhere. The killer showed signs of increased religiosity, so increased religiosity is a sign of a killer. The killer posted hateful rhetoric, so hateful rhetoric is a sign of a killer. Indeed, researchers have long known that the common risk factors for violent extremism have no real predictive power. A February 2018 literature review prepared for the Department of Homeland Security by the research giant RTI International found that “it is unrealistic to expect that the presence of any risk factor — or even the combination of several risk factors — can or will predict ‘with any accuracy’ whether an individual will engage in violent extremism.” Indeed, the risk factors are all backwards-looking. Applying them to the general population makes that obvious.
Take a few of the big ones: a feeling of moral outrage, identification with an in-group perceived to be under threat, and underemployment. That describes a lot of violent extremists. It also describes a lot of journalists. Even if you add more specific risk factors, like mental health issues, having a criminal history, and a recent triggering event like a death or a divorce, well, that could still describe a lot of people who will never even consider violence. It’s impossible to come up with a checklist of risks and pop out a violent extremist.
“If everybody’s path is independent, then there isn’t really a path.”
“As a field, we’re trying to move away from looking at risk factors in isolation,” said Patrick James, a researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “That’s trying to study a very complex problem with a very simple methodology. We’re trying to embrace a more complex view of it, how the variables interact with one another.”
The permutation of risk factors raises an uncomfortable possibility: that the route to violence is so complex and unique that there is no meaningful way to map it. As much as we want to talk about structural forces like socioeconomics and racism in determining who becomes violent and who doesn’t, an impossibly huge number of individual variations appear to play a significant role as well.
“If everybody’s path is independent, then there isn’t really a path,” said Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and a former FBI agent. “Part of what I don’t like about radicalization theory is it takes away the human agency that’s involved.”
And even if there is a path to be found amid the thicket of risk and circumstance, it would have to account for a fact that vexes the academics who study extremism — that two people who seem to be traveling the same road don’t always, don’t usually, wind up in the same place.
“We’re constantly in search of people who have the same characteristics but don’t actually go through with a violent act itself,” John Horgan, a psychologist of political violence at Georgia State University, told me. “We have almost no answers as to why some people choose to pursue violence and some don’t.”
Lane Davis and Ted traveled the same path to the extreme-right internet. They were both early-thirties white male Obama voters who felt threatened by the cultural changes that sparked Gamergate. But while Davis had found in Gamergate evidence of a massive conspiracy against American children, Ted thought well-intentioned liberals demanding more inclusion in games signaled bad things for one of his favorite internet pastimes: trolling.
“It felt like a colonization,” he told me. “People like me, the trolls and internet culture people who owned the internet from 2000 to 2007, we don’t have a lot of spaces left. I felt like, once they got rid of all the very bad people, the sort of bad people like me would be hosed.”
Here was the threatened in-group. Like Davis, Ted wrote an email to Yiannopoulos touting his abilities as a researcher. Like Davis, Ted was proud of his skills as an internet bloodhound; he had placed among the national leaders in a crowd-sourced ProPublica effort to review and catalog tens of thousands of files related to political ad contracts at local television stations. He quickly caught on with the then–Breitbart tech editor’s band of trolls, bigots, and white nationalists. There, he dug into the internet histories of social justice advocates and ghostwrote articles and tweets for Yiannopoulos.
“I didn’t believe in a lot of the politics,” Ted said. “I was just good at it.” Both German and Horgan told me that potential extremists often gain a sense of meaning from an in-group that appreciates their unique skills.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Ted surfaced hundreds of stories for Yiannopoulos that fed into the burgeoning right-wing culture war. In July 2015 he sent Yiannopoulos a story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was charged with — and later acquitted of — murdering a woman in San Francisco. “Remember that guy deported 6 times that san fran let go because they don’t yield to immigration cause its racist?” he wrote, referring to the sanctuary city’s decision, before the murder, to release the accused man from jail on a prior drug charge without reporting it to federal authorities. He surfaced links and helped ghostwrite a series of pieces by Yiannopoulos accusing a prominent Gamergate critic, Sarah Nyberg, of condoning pedophilia.
“How long before they slip a P into LGBTQIA?” Yiannopoulos wrote in an email in September 2015.
“That’s [what] Nyberg was trying to do,” Ted wrote back. “And not like, as a dirty joke, literally.” A conspiracy theory about a left-wing plot to normalize pedophilia was Lane Davis’s obsession in the months before he killed his father.
Ted’s wife worked a day job, and Ted sat long stretches online alone in his house in Chicago working for Yiannopoulos. Slowly he found himself, because of his talent and his status as a former liberal, becoming a valued member of the community. “They love conversion,” Ted told me. “The Candace Owens thing. It’s living proof to them that their ideas are right. When you’re the iffy leftist, you have no friends. When you jump over the other way it’s like, be our guest! They’re not nice people politically, but they are nice day to day.”
In the summer of 2015, Breitbart ran a series of articles — researched partially by Ted — claiming that the writer and Black Lives Matter leader Shaun King had misrepresented his race to advance his career. After the stories ran, Ted wrote to Yiannopoulos that by pointing out the supposed lies of the social justice left, by aligning with the culture-war right, he was really doing the left a favor.
“It’s funny that some on the left see me as a turncoat when really Im like the only fucking person on their side looking out for them,” he wrote. “Days like this make all of this shit worth it.”
Researchers disagree on the reasons for it, but converts are overrepresented in acts of violent extremism. And Ted started to notice the power of red pills: assertions about the biological basis of difference and hierarchy, presented as uncomfortable but necessary truths, which the reactionary internet uses as conversion tools.
“You get this batch of stuff that can be pretty intoxicating,” Ted said. “It’s the closest our generation has to occultism. You’re sort of a necromancer, looking at the dark texts you’re not supposed to look at. Especially in weeks when I wasn’t talking to anybody but myself, there were points when I was into it.”
For Lane Davis, these secret truths became the source of intense moral outrage; for years he fulminated alone about the threat liberals posed to children. For Ted, the red pills remained mostly a game, albeit one that he was very good at.
But if Ted was tempted to convert, the pressures of real life started to break the spell. Ted’s wife was pregnant, and he resented that he was barely being paid for his work for Yiannopoulos, even as he had a child on the way.
“You got 6 months of free labor, if you find that was a bad deal, you hit me up and let me know Milo, and I’ll start working on some sort of exchange or return,” he wrote to Yiannopoulos in September of 2016.
“I started to feel the people who were fighting the culture war were kind of interchangeable,” Ted told me.
Just as Lane had, a disillusioned Ted dropped out of the Breitbart orbit. He moved back to the city where he grew up with his wife and son. Unlike Lane, Ted didn’t double down on the culture war. His departure from Miloworld had left him cynical, and his days as a stay-at-home dad were full. “There’s not a lot of time for evil in general,” Ted joked, “But also my heart just wasn’t in it.”
In the summer of 2017 Ted experienced a shocking change in his family life. Ted’s mother stopped cancer treatments. Together, he and his bedridden mother watched coverage of the Charlottesville riots. She was depressed about the direction of the country.
At the same time, a series of reports in BuzzFeed proved that the billionaire Mercer family was funding Yiannopoulos’s work with white nationalists and white supremacists. Ted felt that he had been part of a plot the dimensions of which he was only now starting to fathom. He began to think he was in danger. He came unmoored.
“When normal people go crazy, it’s someone who has a paranoid fantasy with no narrative or no proveable narrative,” Ted told me. “The difference here is I had been supplied with a narrative, and the narrative lines up in certain ways. It felt like we were seconds away from a war, like the Mercers were trying to take over the country.”
Ted’s mother was near death, and his world of internet trolls and 4chan racism was manifesting itself in physical violence. He felt the distinction between his life online and his life in the physical world start to slip away.
“I wasn’t able to handle those two things at once,” he told me. “I shifted into my internet persona and stayed. And I don’t mean online, I mean around the house. The world, the troll world, felt very real in a way that it shouldn’t.”
He started to worry that his perceptions were so off that he couldn’t trust himself. Most of all, he was scared he would do something to hurt his family.
Around the house: Every night, Ted told me, he would detail to his wife his online research from the day, launching into manic explanations of the conspiracy he perceived all around him. He grew snippy, sarcastic, quarrelsome with his family — an IRL shitlord.
“A lot of us construct these alternate personalities for use on the internet,” Ted said. “And that character can take the lead in moments of high stress. Your mind has these two personalities. One is getting likes and faves and all this praise, and your real-life attempts are failing. In that flight-or-fight moment your brain may not pick the best version of you to drive.”
Just before Halloween, Ted’s mother died. He wasn’t sleeping. He got in nasty, screaming fights with his sister, with his father, with his wife. He wondered if the patterns he thought he saw — in the people who visited his LinkedIn, in hidden clues left in Taylor Swift songs – might not match up with reality. He had just heard about Lane Davis, in whom he had always seen himself. He started to worry that his perceptions were so off that he couldn’t trust himself. Most of all, he was scared he would do something to hurt his family.
“I would never do something violent,” Ted told me. “But I was in a place where my perception of reality didn’t line up with reality. When Lane stabbed his dad he had a perfectly good explanation for it — leftist pedophiles were taking over the world. That’s what I was worried about. I’m not that kind of person, but at the time I didn’t know what kind of person I was. I wasn’t sure I could see what was going on correctly.”
So Ted took a cab to the hospital, where he was admitted, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and “loaded up with the biggest possible injection of Abilify,” an antipsychotic. He spent seven days in the hospital, eating his meals with plastic silverware — metal is a suicide risk — and attending group therapy twice a day. He got discharged, he stayed on the right drugs, and he got better.
The more Ted told me about his breakdown and his history in the right-wing internet, the more I questioned the premise of finding the moment that he and Lane diverged on some fatal path. The men shared many things: demographics, internet communities, deriving social and professional satisfaction from the culture war, liberal parents, mania, delusions.
But they were remarkably different. Ted had a wife and a child he loved. Lane didn’t. Ted got help. Lane didn’t. Ted never quite broke through from trolling to believing. Lane did. Both men, in moments of crisis, retreated into elaborate, internet-addled fantasies about dark forces trying to take over the world. Lane’s was about an imminent political threat, one so powerful it had taken over his family. It had violent overtones. Ted’s was about his role in what he felt was a conspiracy by the Mercers to undermine democracy. It felt rooted in something other than violence: guilt.
Ted said he felt guilty not just about the work he had done for Yiannopoulos, but more so for the way the hours of unpaid work kept him from spending more time with his mother in the months before she died. He said if he was angry at anyone it was at himself, at the Mercers, at the people who had wasted his time, time he could never get back.
But there isn’t an easy answer when it comes to finding the small number of people who will commit extremist violence.
In the fearful story Ted had originally confessed, he focused on all the things he had in common with Lane, all the common markers on a conveyor belt toward violence. He had ignored everything that made them completely different people. That’s exactly what the old radicalization model does: It picks and chooses facts to support an argument that has already been decided.
It’s tempting to look at the differences between Ted and Lane and draw generalizations about mitigation. Take just the most obvious one, that Ted had an anchor in his family life. It would be nice to think that a loving family prevents violent extremism. It would also be totally false: A 2014 study by Horgan and others found that a quarter of violent extremists were married and a quarter of them had children. A family may have made the difference for Ted, or it may not have; but how and why it did, for Ted or for anyone else, is simply a question we can’t answer.
The truth is, as researchers of violent extremism like James and Horgan will tell you, the vast majority of people who use Gab and Stormfront will never commit a violent crime. That’s not to absolve online communities of the beliefs of their members. It’s not to say digital spaces can’t play a major role in ushering people toward violence. As the lasting influence of Anwar al-Awlaki and Dylann Roof show, they can. It’s not even to say such spaces have a right to exist on private hosting services. They don’t — at least not as far as the First Amendment is concerned. But there isn’t an easy answer when it comes to finding the small number of people who will commit extremist violence.
That’s unsatisfying, of course. After a violent tragedy, there’s a powerful impulse to track back in time, to see where an intervention could have been made, to change the present. Where someone could have been recognized. Stopped. It can verge on magical thinking. Yes, it’s scary to think there is no formula for picking through the facts of someone’s life to predict if he’s about to shoot up a black church, or synagogue, or grocery store, or stab his father to death.
But also, in a sense, it’s hopeful. No one who hasn’t hurt anyone yet has to hurt anyone at all. ●
Illustrations by Erik Carter for BuzzFeed News