Inside the online group that treats a racist killer like a saint.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, with the explicit intent of sparking a “race war” between America’s white and minority population. In February 2019, a group of online right-wingers is working to turn Roof’s dark vision into reality, building a cult of personality around the Charleston killer and encouraging others to carry out similar attacks.
And new research from the Anti-Defamation League has found evidence this campaign might be working.
“Within the past two years, a number of zealous Roof fans and would-be copycats have emerged, including some who have crossed the line into criminal activity,” two researchers at the Anti-Defamation League write. The researchers list four examples of individuals who may have been inspired by Roof who were arrested before potentially executing an attack; one said he wanted to “pull a Dylann Roof” and “make the news some more and shoot some Jews.”
The rise in planned attacks by people citing Roof as an inspiration coincides with the rise of the pro-Roof online faction. They’re a loose group of about 40 to 50 hardcore members who refer to themselves as the “Bowl Gang,” a reference to Roof’s distinctive bowl haircut.
Bowl Gang members frequent social media sites popular with the far right like Gab and Discord, spreading memes with slogans like “Dylann Roof did nothing wrong” and Roof’s face with a halo inserted behind it. Their posts actively encourage people to go out and commit violence, dredging up the work of an obscure neo-Nazi theorist and Charles Manson associate to justify their belief.
At least one of the individuals arrested for violent threats was an active member of this group: His online handle was “DC Bowl Gang,” referring to the fact that he lived in Washington, DC. He had also celebrated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter and had a stockpile of illegal weapons; he had threatened a journalist and had grown increasingly radical after his brother’s death by suicide in October. He was arrested only after his family reported him to the FBI.
The causal link between the Bowl Gang and real-world violence is less clear in other cases, but the correlation between online praise and these violent incidents is concerning. While there are thousands of hate crimes every year in the United States, an online subculture dedicated to celebrating the Charleston shooter raises the likelihood of another successful mass casualty attack. Lone wolf terrorism is notoriously difficult to catch and prevent; the fact that no Roof copycat has pulled off a similar attack yet doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.
“By creating all this slang, creating these memes, putting this stuff out in different forums — they’re really trying to spread this,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the ADL and one of the authors of the report. “The danger is that there will be someone out there in the audience who will listen.”
The “Bowl Gang” shows how online hate translates into violence
Roof wasn’t always a hero to the neo-Nazi right. In the immediate aftermath of the attack in 2015, the community was split, Pitcavage and his co-author, the ADL’s Joanna Mendelson, report, with some prominent voices condemning Roof for bringing down law enforcement on their heads.
The rise of Roof admirers coincides with the rise of the loose online group we now know as the alt-right, which allowed new voices to shape the neo-Nazi subculture. Atomwaffen, a particularly radical alt-right group founded in October 2015, began openly encouraging supporters to plan and commit “lone wolf” attacks on African Americans, Jews, and other minority groups.
To bolster their argument, Atomwaffen propagandists relied on the work of James Mason, a Denver-based, old-school neo-Nazi who used to correspond with Charles Manson. Mason’s Siege newsletter, published between 1980 and 1986, argued that individual acts of violence could add up, destabilizing the American political system and bringing on a race war.
“The lone wolf cannot be detected, cannot be prevented, and seldom can be traced,” Mason wrote. “If I were asked by anyone of my opinion on what to look for (or hope for) next I would tell them a wave of killings, or ’assassinations’ of System bureaucrats by roving gun men who have their strategy well mapped-out in advance and well-nigh impossible to stop.”
Atomwaffen has acted on Mason’s ideas; several murders around the country have been linked to group members. Their growing influence has also, according to Pitcavage, led a new generation of white supremacists to see him not as a threat to the movement, but someone to actively be emulated.
“The alt-right and other young white supremacists … just don’t know much the history of the movement because they haven’t been exposed to it,” he said. “When you combine that with the revivification of James Mason and Siege, the promotion of that, those ideas upon these impressionable young white supremacists — and you can see how that can become attractive.”
The Bowl Gang’s chief innovation is to marry Mason’s ideas to a cult of personality surrounding Roof and his attack, using internet-native slang and language to turn him into an icon. In this they’re following in the footsteps of another extremist internet subculture: incels, “involuntary celibate” men who blame their lack of sexual success on women and modern society writ large.
The incel movement was heavily shaped by Elliot Rodger, a young man who killed six people in the town of Santa Barbara in 2014 and wrote a manifesto blaming his attack on women’s lack of attention to him. Rodger was canonized in incel forums — literally referred to as “Saint Elliot.” Users post pictures and memes of him and discuss his writing; they even celebrate his favorite Starbucks drink as a kind of unofficial drink of the incel, and encourage each other to “Go ER,” meaning commit an attack like Rodger’s.
Sometimes this worship appears ironic, but it can be deadly serious. In 2018, a man killed 10 people in Toronto by ramming a van into a pedestrian sidewalk; he cited Rodger as an inspiration in a Facebook post prior to the attack.
The incel community is well known on the internet, and is much larger than the Bowl Gang (there are about 60,000 subscribers to the main incel subreddit). There is significant overlap between the alt-right and incel forum user bases, and it’s clear at the very least that the two groups have hit on the same tactic for radicalizing young men: turning a killer into a hero through memeing.
this article was originally published at Vox.com