Jared Lee Loughner and the Rise of Anti-Social Media

"Hello, my name is Jared Lee Loughner. This video is my introduction to you! My favorite activity is conscience dreaming; the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don't dream -- sadly."

Thus begins a haunting video screed posted to the YouTube channel of the young man who stands accused of unleashing the barrage of deadly gunfire at a political meet-and-greet this past weekend in Tucson. Stunning and senseless, the digital context in which Loughner's "dream" foreshadowed Saturday's cold-blooded nightmare is even more chilling: We've seen this brand of murderer-generated content before and, worse still, it is doubtless not the last of its kind.

Three years earlier, some 5,500 miles away, a similarly unhinged young man named Pekka-Eric Auvinen uploaded video to his own YouTube channel: a montage titled, "Jokela High School Massacre" that announced the bloodletting he would visit upon a Helsinki suburb just hours later. The posting served as postmodern communiqué as Auvinen, who turned the gun on himself that morning, left in his wake eight bodies and a trail of cyber-evidence.

Like that of the Arizona suspect -- and Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho before him -- his violence appeared not only pre-meditated (planned in advance) but also pre-mediated (that is, packaged in advance). As such it heralds the dystopian upshot of anti-social media: MySpace, YouTube, and other such platforms that allow perpetrators to speak "around" old media gatekeepers.

As witnesses in the Web 2.0 biosphere, we can only sift through their self-broadcasting for clues after the fact; signs are only ever obvious in retrospect, particularly given the sheer volume of crowd-sourced creativity uploaded hourly. There is no algorithm as yet to pinpoint such scheming. Yet that evil nonetheless has its own megaphone in a destabilized media landscape.

To be certain, parsing Loughner's inchoate ramblings is a straining exercise in textual detective work. But he eerily strikes many of the same alienated, anti-government chords as one finds in Auvinen's online manifesto. Both stitched together a paranoia-fueled jumble of political philosophy and both vented disdain for the literacy and intelligence of the human race. Amidst a series of enigmatic, if-then postulates, Loughner declares, for example, "I can't trust the current government because of the ratifications: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar." Elsewhere on YouTube, he adds, "If I'm the mind controller then I control the belief and religion."

Similarly, Auvinen opined on a social networking site, "Collective deindividualization is a phenomenon where the individual will be trained as part of the mindless herd... It is just done so people will think they are free and don't realize they are being enslaved... But not me! I am self-aware and realize what is going on in society."

Coherence need not be the crucible for evaluating the schizophrenic rants of a homicidal megalomaniac. Loughner's world reads like the call-in transcript to an overnight AM radio show -- an anti-government acid trip of black helicopters, currency runs, and constitutional overreach.

Given that Loughner's target was a congresswoman, the politicization of his act was inevitable, incumbent, and immediate. Yet it also marks the appearance of what some scholars have called an "interactive spectacle" -- the authorship and distribution of an online, multiplatform PR package as an accompaniment to understanding unfolding events.

According to one account, he posted to his MySpace page just weeks earlier: "I'll see you on National T.v.! This is foreshadow... [sic]" In a networked media environment -- and a social ecology of endemic narcissism -- any Web-cam amateur cineaste can be their own "national TV." The means are there; horrifyingly, Loughner provided the ends as well.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we need to understand how hatred can fester in the anonymized "information cocoons" of today's Internet. Competitive pressures drive news organizations toward gladiatorial debate; shouting is drama and drama sells. Moreover, the sound-bite culture of that debate formats us away from nuance, depth, and complexity. And that will only change when we force it to, as news consumers -- when we get better at seeking out cognitive dissonance in our media diet, allowing doubt into our political views, and losing our appetite for irrational rhetoric.