The ‘Revenge and Bullying’ thesis: YouTube Discussions of School Shooters

The ‘revenge and bullying thesis’ circumscribing bullied boys getting revenge on their tormentors was popular in YouTube debates. This is in spite of the fact that school shooters target innocent people; in some cases, they do not even know their victims (Sandy Hook; Virginia Tech). An effective evaluation of this was an YouTube debater stating “If kids are bulled too much, they now carry out a Harris-and-Klebold [type] revenge.” More worryingly, in YouTube reactions of there was a high proportion of praise and sympathy for the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters, which suggests that the perpetrators — in particular the Columbine ones, since their friends were quoted as saying the shooters had been bullied constantly at the school — are idolised by other bullied kids; this could possibly inspire others with grievances to plan a similar attack.

The idea that the Virginia Tech perpetrator had been racially abused and sought ‘revenge’ against his bullies was a way for disgruntled teenagers to romanticize his actions. A video featuring an interview with his suitemates left some users purporting that they must have bullied him: “These two f**** made fun of him all the time and talked s**** about him”; “It’s obvious that they didn’t treat him like a normal human being.” By contrast, his suitemates made an effort to speak to him and would bring him along to social events, but he would ignore them or engage in strange behaviour like stabbing the carpet at a party they took him to. This left others wondering why the shooter did not target his suitemates in his shooting rampage. At times, users threatening and verbally abusing each other, which is indicative of the nature of online ‘discussions’ — certainly showing that the ‘virtual sphere’ is not always conducive to free and democratic debates — and also shows the strength of people’s feelings on the matter: they feel their point of view is correct.
It certainly seems that because bullying is such a widespread problem, a number of users will have experienced it before and thus empathize with school shooters, with some stating that if they too had been pushed a bit further they may also have taken a similar route. This relates to the theory that school shootings create a ‘cultural script’ of action utilized as a coping strategy for kids feeling depressed and angry, whether due to bullying or personal problems. The correlation between bullying and school shootings became so prevalent for users that they began to ‘normalize’ that a school attack would be the consequence of bullying: “If people didn’t bully and treat others like s*** there wouldn’t be any school shootings”;“If you shove the “weird kid” enough times, he WILL shove back.”

There were counterchallenges in YouTube discussions to the instances of blaming bullying. In the Columbine sample, claims were often made that the perpetrators engaged in bullying themselves and/or were popular in school. The main challenge to the ‘bullying and targeting’ theory prevalent in YouTube discussions is that the Columbine perpetrators killed some people that they did not even know and few of the victims were actually jocks; this, coupled with the fact that the attack was originally intended to be a bombing to blow up the entire school, makes the alternative theory that the shooters were instead targeting the school as an institution a more viable one. Similarly, there was counter-opposition to the idea that the Virginia Tech shooter had been bullied, with people surmising that he was perhaps jealous of everyone else on campus for having an easier time adjusting to university life. The fact the perpetrator went into a number of different classrooms in Norris Hall (the site where the worst of the massacre occurred) showed he was not targeting any particular groups. Moreover, the particularly brutal nature of the attacks — a total of just over a hundred bullets were fired into the thirty-two killed and each of the survivors had been shot at least three times — suggests that the shooter intended to damage the university in general rather than having a vendetta against any specific persons. Accordingly, some users recognised that those killed were not necessarily the ones who bullied the perpetrators: “everyone is a target” and “they kill anyone who gets in their way.” Further exemplifying this were users’ discussions of the Aurora Theatre and Sandy Hook shootings: the completely random nature of these attacks and lack of relationship between the shooters and victims is likely to fuel feelings of fear and the idea that ‘anyone can be a target’ — something which suggests a particular typology of violence.

[The research conducted for this blog were analyses of YouTube comments on videos relating to the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. Future blogs will build upon this to develop a threat assessment model relating to online activities.]

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