Several reports related to the Umpqua Community College shootings in Oregon have indicated that the shooter may have posted a warning to the Internet image-sharing site 4chan. A familiar trope there is that of the “Beta Uprising,” a fantasy rebellion staged by self-proclaimed “betas,” those who profess having trouble with women and other social difficulties. The “Betas” can be contrasted with “normies,” or otherwise socially competent and well-adjusted individuals. Anonymous users post violent fictional scenarios related to the revenge of the betas against the normies and one poster refers to California mass shooter Elliot Rodger as “our hero” celebrating the anniversary of his murders as “Elliot Rodger Day”.
On Thursday, the following post seems to have eerily presaged the shootings at Umpqua Community College:
Comments that followed seemed to egg on the original poster offering suggestions like “carry a knife in case someone gets your gun” and “make everyone get in the corner and then open fire”. Whether or not this original thread was posted by the Oregon shooter, in the aftermath threats posted to the message board have sprung up around the globe. Classes at my university have been cancelled for the rest of the week and the campus is currently under increased security due to bathroom graffiti and other messages threatening mass murder, including the letters “BU,” which some have argued stands for Beta Uprising and “OOP” which some have speculated might indicate “Outside of Powell,” a particular building on campus. The President’s office has repeatedly reiterated that investigation to this point has found no reason to believe this is the case, and some have pointed out that the acronym is used in gaming to refer to “out of protection” or “out of play”. Likewise, the FBI is investigating similar threats in Philadelphia and Austin and reports have emerged as far away as Edinburgh and New Zealand.
Much ado about nothing?
Several 4chan users have come to the defense of the posts there and particularly the Beta Uprising trope arguing that it is simply satire and jokes. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon was inundated with such comments after writing an article indicating that the above post might have been connected to the Umpqua shooting and she fired back that punchlines like “Please be real try to beat [Virginia tech shooter Seung-Hui] cho’s highscore kill them all make them suffer” were anything but funny in the wake of last week’s mass killing. Taking these comments and discussions seriously gives considerable insight into prevalent ontological insecurities related to gender, hierarchy, class and sex. Ontological insecurity is the opposite of the ontological security described by Giddens (1991) which results from a sense of order and continuity in one’s personal experience. In The Exclusive Society, Jock Young (1999) explained how the cultural revolution led to a “brave new world” focused on the many social constructions of reality such as race, class and gender that had been previously taken for granted and/or seen as part of a natural order of things. The present condition deemed late modernity he says, is “a brave new world where difference could be respected and where authority was treated with suspicion, where no longer would one culture proclaim its unchallenged dominance, where white, middle class, middle aged males (some dead, some almost so) no longer set the rules” (p. 99).
The reactionary response to this emphasis on multiculturalism, Young describes as including an increasing essentialism of others as ontological insecurity rises resulting in crises of identity for entire groups (particularly those who feel their place in traditional hierarchies are challenged). “In such a moral climate fundamentalism has a great appeal, as has the reassertion of basic or family values. The entry of women into the public sphere poses greater challenges to masculinity and engenders conflict whilst the marginalization of lower working class men generates macho-cultures which wear their gender essentialism like a badge” (Young, 1999:104). Soraya Chemaly’s blog at Huff Post Crime clearly describes how these types of insecurities are a crucial component of any analysis of mass killings, pointing out how in the past 30 years every mass murder except one was perpetrated by men. Race is impossible to ignore as well since 90% of those killers were white men.
Regardless, many commenters at 4chan still seem to be looking for lulz in all the wrong places. Jay Hathaway at Gawker detailed how 4chan users even managed to troll the media by framing a couple of their “friends” for the shooting. Is this the “looping circularity” described by Ferrell, Hayward and Young (2015) that “offers up dynamics that interweave the ludicrous with the malicious” (p. 155)? Or is this more “amplifying spiral that winds its way back and forth through media accounts, situated action and public perception” (p. 158)? If these are jokes or pranks, they are of a particularly twisted bent. If merely the late modern equivalent of pulling the fire alarm to avoid an exam (as have some have speculated) it has raised the bar with regard to both the institutional and mass psychological effect of such behavior. Preparing for my last lecture in an 8 week course on terrorism yesterday, I was reminded of the position that “terrorism is theater” and felt certain that someone somewhere is getting quite the kick, or perhaps lulz, out of the show they’ve created. Perhaps this is the case for multiple individuals in different locations? Maybe for one particularly motivated person pretending to be in several places at the same time?
Whatever it is, it certainly has me, many of my students and several colleagues feeling the vertigo of late modernity.
Lecturer, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University