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Why we should stop using the phrase "lone wolf"

It is time the definition of "online radicalisation" was broadened to include the indoctrination of lonely, young white men. 

Within a day of the fatal shooting of six people at a Quebec City mosque, Canadian public safety minister Ralph Goodale had described the suspect, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, as a “lone wolf”.

Although the term ostensibly refers to an individual acting without help from a group, it is now often used to downplay acts of terrorism committed by white, non-Muslim perpetrators. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011, was consistently referred to as a “lone wolf” in the media. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian who killed 86 people when he drove a truck into a crowd in Nice last July, was not.

Used directly after an attack, the phrase “lone wolf” is also laden with other meanings. It means: this man should not be treated as a terrorist. It means: we have found and isolated the problem. Most importantly it means: you are safe. He was alone. There is no one else.

More often than not, however, this is simply untrue.

Claims that Bissonnette, who has not entered a plea, was a right-wing “troll” are now gathering media attention. Francois Deschamps, the owner of a “Welcome to Refugees” Facebook page, claimed the student used to leave hateful posts on the site. Similarly, Breivik’s use of the internet has been studied extensively, and there are suggestions that he was radicalised online. The disenfranchised young men who fit the profile of terrorist shooters worldwide are no longer as isolated as they used to be. Thanks to internet radicalisation, lone wolves have found a pack.

“When used in common parlance ‘online radicalisation’ tends to focus on Islamic communities,” says  Alex Krasodomski-Jones, a researcher of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. “But absolutely right-wing communities have existed on the internet almost since its conception. They operate extremely effectively online and I don’t think you would be hard-pressed to describe them as places where people could radicalise.”

Last November, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa pointed out – in a series of viral tweets – that we need to reconsider what we think of as “online radicalisation”.

For many years, lonely young men have vented their romantic and sexual frustrations online, which has lead them to form extreme anti-feminist and misogynistic groups such as Reddit’s r/TheRedPill and r/Incels (which stands for "involuntarily celibate"). Similarly, white supremacist websites such as Stormfront have long been a home for extreme right-wing views. Within the last year, the two communities have bled into each other, after finding a common hero: the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.

If you find it hard to comprehend how someone can go online with one extreme view and log off with another, an ex-user of the notoriously politically incorrect forum 4Chan describes it best. Under the heading “A warning for young isolated men like myself”, the man known only by his Reddit username, 500ooo, writes:  

“I used to browse 4chan (for about 4 years) back when I was a shutin at college and at home… I was definitely addicted to 4chan … I browsed some of the worst boards there, too … despite conscious efforts, a lot of the garbage did seep its way into my mind. Now, I never believed them that much, but they would still be there, likely influencing me.

“Given enough time in those places, and a lack of sensible human beings to socialize with, one would experience the same thing I did. Slowly your views on things, like women, race, whatever, will start to change.”

The user goes on to claim that white supremacy websites actively “game” subreddits for “loser/virgin/lonely/angry” young men. “The very idea of some naive, confused kid being brainwashed by these people brings my blood to a boil,” he writes. “Being in shitty communities stunts critical thinking and any kind of growth, creating a negative feedback loop.”

This is exactly what Cass Sunstein, the author of #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, thinks is happening. “A cybercascade occurs when someone says something, and then someone else repeats it, and then someone else does the same, and pretty soon we have a cascade effect, when lots of people think something is true, simply because so many people seem to think it is true – and it might be false,” he says. “It happens every month and probably every week.”

Sunstein’s comments illustrate that online radicalisation is a two-way street. Those who become extremists on little-known forums may have been pushed there first by traditional social media. The brevity and urgency of sites such as Twitter mean that all our views can become extreme caricatures, forcing others to define themselves in opposition. Sunstein argues this has fuelled political polarisation in the US and the UK.

“Members of all demographic groups are vulnerable to radicalisation via the internet,” he says. “If you're in an echo chamber, or listening to people who agree with you, you're likely to get more extreme. With echo chambers, self-governance becomes much harder because people end up living in different political universes.”

There are now countless examples of such echo chambers leading to terrorist attacks. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people at the University of California in May 2014, was a regular poster on the woman-hating forum PUAhate, and now his own manifesto inspires a new generation of “involuntary celibates” on Reddit. Efforts to tackle this content should be given the same resources as government attempts to curb Islamic radicalisation online.

“Applying the same thresholds to far-right extremist content as Islamist extremist online content is vital in order to stem the flow of far-right propaganda currently surfacing on public platforms,” says Melanie Smith, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank which works to tackle rising extremism. “I think raising awareness around far-right radicalisation seems like an easy win – the use of appropriate labelling and terminology would be an important first step.”

At the time of writing, there is no conclusive evidence that Alexandre Bissonnette was radicalised online. Many media outlets have run with the fact he “Likes” Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen on Facebook, but he also “Likes” John McCain, "Kindness Matters", and “International Tom Hanks Day”. “Liking” something doesn’t always mean you actually like it, as many people use the button to follow pages they don’t agree with in order to keep up with the latest news.

Bissonnette's Facebook "Likes" via Facebook

The way the media has plundered Bissonnette’s Facebook profile – posting pictures of his Halloween costume and trying to glean information from his status updates – could itself fuel online extremism. We create search-engine optimised articles titled “Who was Bissonnette/Breivik/Rodger?” and create a simplified narrative of a lone wolf. We then pilfer shooters’ social media pictures and posts, creating instant heroes for anyone with similar views.

Bissonnette now faces six counts of first-degree murder and five of attempted murder, but no terrorism-related charges. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.