“This world rejects me
This world threw me away
This world never gave me a chance
This world gonna have to pay”
Like so many others who were the last of Gen X, my teenage years were filled with angst. We understood Mikey and Mallory Knox. Rage Against The Machine spoke to us. Neo showed us that overthrowing the hierarchy was a necessary consequence of destroying our complacent state of existence. In everyday life, we were perpetually unaware of reality, tantamount to slavery. Tyler Durden taught us that bringing down the system was the natural course of evolution. Our Woodstock ended in fires, riots, and the destruction of property and civility. Everything was not what it was supposed to be, and our films, music, and zeitgeist supported that premise while reinforcing a message of resistance and anger toward the system.
So, why aren’t way more of the millions of males from this era “Columbine” infamous? Honestly, we grew up.
Since that horrific moment in Columbine in 1999, the United States has seemed to spiral downwards in terms of violence. School shootings alone have trended upwards since Columbine, exploding in the 2010s, and continue to increase in 2023. In 2017, there was one mass shooting every 12.5 days. In the first half of 2023, by June 19th, 311 mass shootings were reported. That’s 1.8 mass shootings every day, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon.
“And I don’t believe in your institutions
I did what you want me to
Like the cancer in your system
I’ve got a little surprise for you”
So what is causing this trend of angry young males to arm themselves heavily and make such public and agonizing displays of their fury? If many experts have taught anything about this situation, this is multifaceted, with no easy answers.
As a primer, Tom Nichols writing for The Atlantic, theorizes on this subset of males he calls “The Lost Boys:”
“The lost boys are mostly young and male, largely middle- or working-class. Frustrated by their social awkwardness, they are so often described as “loners” that the trope has been around from as early as the 1980s. But these young males, no matter how “quiet,” are filled with an astonishing level of enraged resentment and entitlement about their roles as men. They seek rationalizations for inflicting violence on a society they think has ignored and injured them. They become what the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger called “radical losers,” unsuccessful men who feel that they have been denied their dominant role in society and who then channel their blunted male social impulses toward destruction.”
Given the framework of whom these shooters tend to be, the blame as to why this is happening is both wide in scope and often political. Consider the following theories a quick Google search delivers on this topic:
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been accused of negatively evolving on this subject and playing zero sum politics when debating gun control. Mental health and illness have been front and center as talking points regarding the shooters. At the same time, experts also say the constant mass shootings have harmed the mental health of millions of Americans who have to live with the uncertainty of possibly being the next victim. Video games are also to blame, according to some, as is pornography according to anti-pornography activists, an “absence of faith in God” is the problem, say the religious crowd, not to mention prostitution, racism, and even illegal immigration have all had their moment of scrutiny when it comes to this topic.
All those mentioned above have at least some culpability in perpetuating this problem, but not in every incident. Despite having a few horrific traits in common, mass shooters are often as multifaceted as the reported causes for their rampages. Some are mentally ill; some are not when considering the DSM definition. Some are racist; some are equal-opportunity killers. The real answer here is to take each shooter as a case-by-case situation while understanding holistically that all of the issues mentioned here need addressing somehow.
“I look down there where you’re standing
Flock of sheep out on display
With all your lies bumped up around you
I can take it all away”
While acknowledging the issues that experts have written on the above, I think there is a significant thread here that doesn’t nearly get as much “air time” in the cacophony of opinions surrounding this problem: the communities that these mass shooters have built online during the era of the rise social media and disinformation.
2012 saw the ramp-up of mass shooting frequency, but there was also an absolute explosion in people under eighteen with increased depression and suicidality, and it’s been growing ever since. Simultaneous to this rise in mental health issues was the massive expansion in Facebook and social media adoption, with the largest platform on the planet reaching 1 billion users in October of 2012 and, within five years, doubling that number.
“Something inside of me
Has opened up its eyes
Why did you put it there
Did you not realize?”
One of the things that the internet has been excellent at is building communities of like-minded people. However, when those communities reinforce demonstrably false information or encourage negative activity, they should become of deep concern to the rest of us. Prior to the formation of the online community, physical communities kept a check on misinformation, which is why fringe movement numbers were usually small. However, with online communities of like-minded people finding each other, the fringe gets reinforced in a way they previously weren’t, leading us to mass shooters.
Their communities are on fringe message boards like the now defunct 4Chan or the horrific Kiwi Farms. Here users can post anonymously and post what they do. Mass Shooters have been tied to these sites, which are often blamed for not only radicalizing them but also encouraging these actions. The recent Buffalo, New York shooter was radicalized there into racist theories and posted a manifesto on that very subject just before executing ten black patrons at the Tops Friendly Market while livestreaming the entire ghastly event to his followers. The victims’ families are now suing social media companies, claiming that the 18-year-old shooter’s background had no indicators of radicalization and that he learned all of this online. 4Chan clone, 8Chan, has seen a rash of manifestos put out prior to violent acts. The mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 was tied to online radicalization. Shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, Gilroy, California, Dayton, Ohio, and more have all been tied there.
“Something inside of me
It screams the loudest sound
Sometimes I think I could
And like these Nine Inch Nails lyrics that helped shape the generation of Columbine, it all comes back to the individual. At some point, we all have to take responsibility for our actions while understanding our motivations. We do have a problem with a legion of young men “filled with an astonishing level of enraged resentment and entitlement about their roles as men,” and while they must own their actions, we, as a society, cannot ignore the harmful infrastructure we have created that help foster this variant of societal terrorism. There are no easy answers here, and we can never fully police or monitor the internet for violent outliers. Misinformation and disinformation aren’t going away soon, nor is racism or misogyny, no matter how much society tries. Our best bet, in my opinion, is to simply listen to them and try to help as best we can. If we can create a new, healthier infrastructure around them, maybe we’ve got an actual shot of turning the tide.
An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small business owners up to Fortune 100 level companies for decades. Since the age of 7, he’s been on a first-name basis with technology, building computers and programming in multiple languages. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc at 19 which was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.
Nick is a regular columnist, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and on the Board of Advisors for both Roosevelt University & Center for Cyber and Information Security as well as the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s also the Official Spokesperson of the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition, Strategic Advisor to humanID, award-winning co-author of a bestselling book, TEDx Speaker, and President of The Foundation.