Meanwhile, white supremacists were catching up in the online space. Although many legacy white-nationalist figures and organizations had Twitter or Facebook accounts by 2012, most boasted only a handful of followers. By 2016, the same figures on Twitter had increased their follower counts by more than 600 percent, and by 2018, hundreds of thousands of new and legacy racist extremists had flooded the platform. Those numbers were amplified by astroturf, but unquestionably included thousands of real, engaged people, many of whom were visible participants in mainstream politics.
Less prominent platforms, including 4chan, 8chan, and Gab, made space for more extreme white supremacists who couldn’t color within the lines of the major social-media platforms’ rules. When Facebook and YouTube began, belatedly, to crack down on white-supremacist content this year, many users moved to the encrypted Telegram app, joining ISIS in exploiting that platform’s more permissive environment.
Deplatforming helped reduce the overall reach of white-supremacist propaganda, but users who migrated to less prominent platforms quickly created a pressure-cooker environment where radicalization to violence could take place very quickly, with adherents goading one another into ever more extreme views and actions.
While all this was happening on the information front, another important dynamic changed—the art of the possible.
In 2011, the Norwegian white supremacist and anti-Muslim extremist Anders Behring Breivik carried out a devastatingly deadly and truly lone terrorist attack, killing 77 people in a single day with no assistance, no accomplices, and apparently none of the craving for validation that led Timothy McVeigh to make repeated phone calls to white-supremacist leaders in the days before the Oklahoma City bombing. Other lone actors had killed before, but Breivik was set apart by his solitary plan, his massive body count, and his 1,518-word manifesto, which laid out both his reasons for carrying out the attack and his detailed tactical preparations.
That manifesto became the baton in a relay race of extremists, passed from one terrorist murderer to the next through online communities. Since Breivik’s attack, a series of terrorist imitators and successors have replicated the form of the written record he left behind, and his style of attack. In the aftermath of Breivik’s attack, a significant number of extremists, both white nationalist and jihadist, carried out regular and highly lethal gun massacres without apparent direction, including but not limited to a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, and the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. In July of this year, an anarchist lone attacker was killed by police while mounting an assault on an ICE facility in Tacoma, Washington.