Before accused South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof one year ago walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where parishioners welcomed him into their Bible study, he was "locked in his room looking up bad stuff on his computer,” Paige Mann, Roof’s former stepmother, told Time. “Something on the computer drew him in—this internet evil."
Roof might have remained a crazed, lonely landscaper had he not been able to find other like-minded white supremacists on the internet. Had he not found his tribe, there is a chance that his hatred might have remained insulated, and maybe nine black worshippers wouldn’t be dead. There is a chance that he may have never learned the secret, white power numerology behind 1488 or the history of Rhodesia without racist online forums and dubious subreddits.
For all the wonderful things the internet has given us, unified hatred might be the unforeseen backlash of having us all connected. Now lonely, deranged, racist thinkers have forums and groups; places where they can share information to fuel their like-minded evil thinking; a place where their hate is not only welcomed but embraced. A place that encourages hateful people to act on their feelings. And even more dangerous, an anonymous mask to hide behind.
Where Hate Lurks
The internet didn't start the evil, but in some corners of the web, where the masses don’t tread, the internet provides a place to share vitriol recipes the way suburban moms share ones for punch. And while the days of the white-hooded men terrorizing black families are not behind us, this new breed of cowardice is damaging, equally anonymous and possibly more deadly. Those lonely white men who have lost their way can now hop on the information highway and be led to equally lost people who connect only in their depressive hatred. Not only can they connect, but they’re revered. They have a home.
Before Ammon Bundy and friends took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016, they used social media to find others who believed as they did. Once the 41-day standoff began, Twitter and Facebook became the anti-government group’s preferred medium to find supporters of their movement. Under the Facebook page Citizens 4 Constitutional Freedom, which is still being updated and still spouting hatred of our institutions, “Y’all Qaeda” found a supportive community willing to provide them everything from supplies to weapons. Currently, Bundy and his brother Ryan are in an Oregon jail fighting for internet access.
In 2014, gamers wanting to cleanse the online gaming community of women, took up the hashtag GamerGate, which at its core was a cyber witch hunt that included posting the telephone number and address of female game designer Zoe Quinn. At its peak, the online threats became so intense that Quinn was forced to move from her home.
Donald Trump’s entire candidacy—from his platform to his speeches to his social media posts—is nothing short of the physical manifestation of all the racist troll comments ever made in the history of the internet. It’s as if the troll section of Twitter somehow morphed into an orange man with bad hair who ran for president.
The hate is real and the damage becomes intensified when that online hatred spills offline.
The Importance of Image
Maybe Roof was going for gangster when he posted a shirtless photo of himself crouched over in straight-leg, acid-wash jeans and destroyed construction boots, spitting on the American flag on his now-defunct website The Last Rhodesian. The name of the website, an ode to the land of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, holds “an important place in the online forums where neo-Nazis and other white supremacists gather,” reports the Christian Science Monitor. Calling his site the Last Rhodesian was an online shoutout to the tiny country of Rhodesia’s then leader, Ian Smith, who declared a white republic in 1964. Rhodesia now serves as an almost mythical place where whiteness once ran free. It’s the utopian dream for racists and white separatists on message boards, and Roof was all in.
He sported the Rhodesian flag, a less conspicuous white power symbol, on his jacket. It was only there for those in the know. And in order to actually be in the know, you had to have found your tribe. Which leads back to the photos. For Roof, playing the part wasn’t enough. He posted several thug shots; the problem is they’re only menacing knowing that he is charged with shooting and killing nine people. But to look at his photos in retrospect, he’s just a rail-thin white kid with a farmer’s tan playing tough. He looks almost goofy in one photo, holding a Confederate flag and a pistol in front of several potted flowers. And that is surely the image he was trying to break.
Image. That’s the engine driving social media. We’re all trying to one-up each other’s photographic lives even if we don’t want to admit it. My food is better than yours. My moment, my daily life moment, is better than yours. My clothes, my children, my car, my friends are all better than yours. We’re fueled by likes and retweets, and the same shallow currency that trades on Instagram and Twitter also moves in the underbelly of the internet.
Roof wanted the respect of the other racists because that’s the age we live in. Roof wanted to be seen as a real soldier in hatred’s army. He wanted his racist “friends” to see how much more of a racist he was. He wanted to be admired by a bunch of people who not only applaud the deaths of nonwhites but also celebrate those deaths and share photos.
Roof claims in a manifesto that appeared on his website that the protests over Trayvon Martin’s being gunned down was the tipping point. He then went to the internet searching for answers and found the Council of Conservative Citizens, which hosted a series of photos showing dead white bodies of people supposedly killed by blacks.
“There were pages upon pages of these brutal black-on-white murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment, I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black-on-white murders got ignored?” Roof wrote.
Once he was on this road, there was no turning back. Roof marched with purpose through the murky dregs of the internet to find what he believed to be true. Inside the sickness that lives on message boards like 4Chan, Roof began chasing the elusive cool, and the price of hanging with his “in crowd” was the death of black life. The internet facilitated that. It helped introduce a “painfully shy” Roof to a crowd that was willing to accept his nobody-ness, and the trade-in was nothing short of gang affiliation. But Roof became tired of internet mobbing and, according to prosecutors, decided to take his hatred offline.
Because the internet has pushed the hatred inside homes, white supremacists can now simply hide in the darkest parts of their parents’ basement illuminated only by the glow of a computer, and use their Cheetos-dust-covered fingertips to spout their innermost feelings. What Roof felt inside got ignited online and spread to a church where no one wanted to know Dylann Roof. Where no one there woke up thinking about him, and now their families and the country will never forget his name.
“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight,” Roof’s manifesto stated. “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time, had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.
“We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” he wrote.
Dylann Roof is the hate that hate created.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.