Tag Archives: online threats

Shaping and Showcasing Killer Identities: The Example of the Jokela School Shooting

In the blog post published on the 22nd of June 2014, I outlined the ways in which promotion of an identity constructed before a school shooting is a ‘performance’ intended for a particular audience. This post will follow up on this, by looking at the specific example of the Jokela High School incident on the 7th of November 2007. In this case, the eighteen year old perpetrator, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, put together a manifesto package explaining his motives. Prior to this, he engaged in online discussions about school shooters and gave some indication that he would perpetrate his own attack.

 

Eight were killed in the attack perpetrated by Auvinen in an attack on the upper (secondary) school within the Jokela School Centre. Similar to other school shootings, this incident had been planned well in advance. Preparations for Jokela were thought to have started in March 2007 based on Auvinen’s diary entry at that time, which stated intent to carry out an ‘operation against humanity.’ Also included in that diary entry was a desire for this ‘operation’ to be infamous with a lasting impact on society and to inspire others to carry out similar acts.

 

These sentiments were echoed in online debates Auvinen engaged in, taking place in internet communities dedicated to discussing the Columbine school shooting. Auvinen’s interest in this particular attack was explicated in him making a video about the incident: for instance, he put together a montage from the surveillance camera footage of the Columbine attack. Researchers found that the ties to these online groups magnified Auvinen’s desires and went some way to encouraging him to follow through with these in a proper attack. (1) Corresponding with others interested in school shooters has been a feature of other school shootings: for instance, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook attack compiled a spreadsheet about school shooters and discussed them in detail with others online. (2) In the case of the Jokela school shooter, a clear intention to carry out a school shooting was expressed; although this lacked concrete details such as a date and location.

 

With him having a potential audience within the online community he was part of, Auvinen then uploaded materials to the internet: one of these was a manifesto entitled ‘Natural Selector’s Manifesto.’ (3) Throughout internet discussions, Auvinen had been prone to paraphrasing the quotations of Columbine attacker, Eric Harris about natural selection and being ‘God-like.’ Similar to Harris, in this manifesto, he made scathing comments about certain types of social groups and decried the human race in general. In addition to this document, the final media package constructed the night before his attack included a more detailed manifesto comparing his actions to ‘political violence’ to promote an ideology, videos featuring various mass murderers and a goodbye note for his family. With his fascination with radical ideology and terrorism, Auvinen had originally expressed a desire to target the Parliament in Finland; however, he felt that an attack in a school would create more ‘publicity.’ (4)

 

Considering all of this, it is clear that the online discussions helped both to cultivate an audience for Auvinen and provide him with further details about school shooters. It was clear he admired the Columbine school shooter, Eric Harris, and this was echoed in his manifesto comments about ‘natural selection’ and humanity. This was exemplified further in Auvinen preparing a detailed final manifesto to portray himself and his beliefs in a certain way before carrying out the attack and sending this to the media with the belief that this would bring maximum publicity.

 

[This blog post looked at a specific school shooting incident in Finland. Continuing the international theme, the next post will compare and contrast European school shootings with those occurring in the United States.]

 

  1. Oksanen A., Nurmi J., Vuori M., Räsänen P. (2013) ‘Jokela: The Social Roots of a School Shooting Tragedy in Finland.’ In School Shootings, edited by Böckler N., Seeger T., Sitzer P., Heitmeyer W. New York, NY: Springer, 189-215.
  2. The dangers of ‘school shooter admirers’ was discussed in my blog post published on the 29th of June 2014.
  3. Accordingly, he picked the user name ‘NaturalSelector89’ for his user account on YouTube.
  4. See page 208 of Oksanen A., Nurmi J., Vuori M., Räsänen P. (2013) ‘Jokela: The Social Roots of a School Shooting Tragedy in Finland.’ In School Shootings, edited by Böckler N., Seeger T., Sitzer P., Heitmeyer W. New York, NY: Springer, 189-215.

 

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Debating School Shootings: What YouTube Reveals

In this post, I want to highlight the usefulness of appropriating the video-sharing/social media website YouTube to study people’s understandings of school shootings. Comments on this website offer a ‘snapshot’ — they are not a comprehensive representation, given their limited space and people’s selectiveness of what they choose to write — into people’s perceptions both at the time of the school shooting incidents and periods afterwards. Notably, YouTube is an auspicious site for debates amongst users, given its relatively simple interface, some degree of anonymity for users and threads of comments. YouTube has already been the subject of analysis in only a handful of school shooting related studies. (1)

What makes YouTube particularly compelling for researchers is that it allows for people’s true feelings about the perpetrators and the shootings to be expressed without any censoring — the only exception to this would be flagging comments as ‘spam, but those can still be read anyway by clicking on the ‘show’ link. This would not be the case with other avenues of public discussion, for example ‘letters to the editor’ sent to news media outlets, as these go through an editorial process like other news content. It also gives an insight into the particular language used to describe school shootings and their perpetrators. The downside to that is that commentators sometimes use ‘colourful’ language, poor grammar and post in a ‘rant’ like format. On some occasions, users may be internet trolls deliberately engaging in debates with shocking or offensive to get a reaction from others.

Bockler and Seeger (2) sought out users expressing admiration for school shooters and thereafter interviewed them to find out why they felt this way. In the blogs posted on the 25th and 29th of June 2014, I discussed the feelings expressed on YouTube about school shooters, with dangerous principles, such as the ‘revenge and bullying theory’ and admiration for school shooters, being advanced by users. Extrapolating from this material, I designed a threat assessment model to be used to analyse material posted online about school shootings — refer back to the post published on the 16th July 2014 for a reminder of this. As documented in the blog posted on the 2 July 2014, the main problem with YouTube, however, is that it is nothing is really known about users except what they post and it is questionable how much of that is actually true. This means that the threat assessment model I proposed would be most effective when it is coupled with offline behaviours and threats, requiring a deeper analysis of users’ lives.

The study by Lindgren (3) examined patterns in school shooting discussions, discovering that monthly comments on videos would increase exponentially following a notable incident (i.e. high media coverage). Accordingly, this was something I noticed in my own research examining comments from June 2012-June 2013: activity peaked after high-profile mass shooting incidents at the Aurora Theatre, Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut. The resulting dialogues focused on a myriad of blame factors for these incidents occurring: gun laws, violent entertainment media, bullying, high school culture, the wider culture and the parents of perpetrators. Interestingly, it seemed to be a common acceptance amongst YouTube users that school shooters tend to be male, with some disputing essentialist notions of masculinity like sexual and athletic prowess, and the use of weapons — the blog posted on 11th of June 2014 spoke about the gendered nature of school shootings.

To sum up, future research should aim to utilise this research tool to examine dialogues between users as they unfold. Doing so will help capture the voice of the general public in how they react to school shooters and the way they make sense of incidents — this will then facilitate attempts to reduce the problem, particularly in trying to deter those who express admiration for school shooters.

[This blog was put together by looking at previous research linking YouTube and school shootings and my past blog entries falling under the same purview. The next two blog postings will examine gun legislation suggested as ways to reduce school shootings.]

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.

Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.
  • Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.

Online ‘Leakage’: Interrogating Internet Activities as Part of Threat Assessment

The last two blog discussed school shooter admirers expressing their thoughts in the site YouTube. What is of key concern here is that users with similar mindsets sympathising with and admiring school shooters might ‘discover’ each other on social media and plan an attack together or perhaps encourage others to perpetrate a shooting — with this in mind, it certainly seems that online sites should be subject to more intense scrutiny and threat assessment.

The study conducted by Pollak et al. examining a series of school shooting incident for patterns found that in eighty-one percent of actual and planned incidents at least one person knew about the attacker’s plans beforehand. It was discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for bystanders not coming forward with threats were: not having a supportive school climate, lack of a positive adult influence, not taking the threat seriously, and having a close relationship with the threat-maker. In the case of YouTube comments, the ‘bystanders’ — other YouTube users and ‘guests’ who view the site but are not logged on — are in a much better position to report threats: they do not have a relationship with the threat-maker; even if some users do not take the threats seriously, others will; unlike a school environment, they do not need to worry about being scolded if it transpires that they ‘overreacted’ to the threat.
The counterargument could be made that users attracted to a particular kind of video (say, a school shooter fan video) would be more likely to encourage and desire a school shooting than report threats. This highlights the need for researchers in relevant fields (criminology, psychology, sociology) to prioritise further studies into this area and for online Intel to then feed its way through to threat assessment. A way to facilitate this process is for websites like YouTube to have links to the appropriate authorities for the countries its users are from; this would be more encouraging to bystanders, who may feel they do not know the most relevant organization to report threats to. Of course, the predicament here is that trying to find the ‘right’ authority that has jurisdiction over threats posted on the internet is problematic, as it draws resources away from other matters. The development of a threat assessment model could negate this to some extent, especially if partnerships could be fostered between the relevant bodies such as researchers, schools, local law enforcement.

One problem arising, however, is trying to conduct threat assessment on the basis of the threat alone does not reveal whether the threat-maker has the ability, motive and desire to actually carry out the threat which they speak. On sites like YouTube, no other information is generally known about users outside of the threat, bar that which they do reveal — it is questionable how much of this is true though — so this makes threat assessment using online Intel only a tougher process than piecing together someone’s history in a school environment. The context is which a threat is made is of key important here, as it reflects the threat-maker’s mental and emotional state at that specific moment in time; hence, a threat could be triggered by substances or a devastating event when the threat-maker actually has no intention of going through with it. Accordingly, this is even more of an issue with online threats, for some commentators, rather than actually planning an attack, will be internet trolls or even just bored children looking for attention or deliberately trying to start an argument.
A short-term solution to the threat requires the cooperation of the website in question to give some details about the user’s location so that schools in close proximity can be warned. Once the website has provided some information about the threat-maker, a long-term solution would need a partnership between researchers assessing online Intel and the local school board to see if there are any parallels between threats reported both by bystanders online and within schools. If users’ identities were narrowed down further, then that would require communication between researchers and individual schools to try and trace the individual — students at each school could be encouraged to report anything they see online to facilitate that process. This calls for the creation of a separate agency to monitor and investigate threats posted via the Internet, or for perhaps passing some legislation to deal with online threats (a number of states have included cyber-bullying in their bullying protocols, which is a good start.

[Threat assessment knowledge was used to put together this post. The next blog will document a threat assessment model using all the postings throughout June 2014.]