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Columbine High School Massacre

Columbine school shooters glorified by young followers: Inside the scary online obsession

When two 91影视 students murdered 12 of their classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, they committed what history would etch as the first school shooting of the internet era.

At the time, Google was still a startup. Facebook, the iPhone and YouTube had not yet been invented. Yet 25 years later, the traces left online by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have not faded into the obscurity of the early web.听

Instead, those remnants took hold in each evolving online technology 鈥 chat rooms, social media and video 鈥 and today spark obsessive online interest among a generation that wasn鈥檛 even alive at the time of the attack.听

That interest flourishes via online algorithms that amplify edgy or hate-fueled content, researchers say 鈥 and via social media platforms that prioritize audiences and profits over finding and removing violent and damaging content.听

On the 1990s-era internet, the killers left behind their plans of violent terror 鈥 like threats and bomb-building instructions 鈥 as well as the personal minutiae of teenage life, like playing the first-person shooter game Doom. The lyrics to a favorite song, a recent electronic-metal release called 鈥淪tray Bullet,鈥 were posted on one of their websites.

A line of 13 crosses honoring the victims of the Columbine shootings are anchored by one large cross that bears their names on a piece of property owned by Ron Aigner, inside Roxborough Park. Aigner offered the location when the crosses were removed from Rebel Hill at Clement Park on April 30, 1999.

A dark subculture latched onto those details of their online life and the investigative reports that followed. The killers鈥 photos, personal journals and home videos fueled discussions in internet forums and chat rooms.听

Today, researchers track social media, video sites and gaming platforms, where they find a cult of Columbine thriving among young internet users.

TikTok profiles with the shooters鈥 names and photos are festooned with hearts and ribbons and fans of the shooters declare their love and admiration in the comments. Videos splice together old footage and stills of the shooters.

First-person shooter simulations of the Columbine massacre regularly pop up on TikTok where they fetch tens and even hundreds of thousands of views.听

In this April 21 file photo, Shaleane Elliott, 21, a graduate of Columbine High, and Emily Stepp, 18, a senior at the school, weep for friends killed in the shooting at an impromptu memorial near the school in Littleton, 91影视.

While some online platforms say they work to find and eliminate violent content, online experts and school shooting survivors continue to say the megacompanies of the modern internet haven鈥檛 done enough to stamp out these dark elements of the early web.听

Social media companies are 鈥渞aking in the money,鈥 Anne Marie Hochhalter, who was shot and paralyzed during the Columbine attack, told 91影视. 鈥淭hey're not going to do anything about it because then the traffic will go down.鈥

Whatever the forum, the subculture鈥檚 real-life effects have been persistent and deadly.听

Students hug during the memorial service for victims of the Columbine High School shooting tragedy on April 25, 1999.

School shooters, including the killers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 and Virginia Tech in 2007, studied and emulated the Columbine attack. The documents posted online by copycats frequently mention the influence of Columbine.听

In January, a 17-year-old high school student in Iowa shot six people, killing one, before turning the gun on himself. Shortly before the shooting, he posted a photo on TikTok of himself聽in a bathroom stall with a duffel bag at his feet, with the words, 鈥淣ow we wait.鈥澛

The post was set to music, an old electronic-metal song from the 1990s called 鈥淪tray Bullet.鈥澛

More:25 years later, the trauma of the Columbine High School shooting is still with us

Columbine imagery easy to find on game sites, social media聽

Much of the online content related to Columbine today is created by young people or designed to appeal to them, two researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found in a recent study.

Moustafa Ayad and Isabelle 91影视s-Wright say young people are enthralled by the Columbine killers and create content that goes viral on social media, from first-person shooter simulations to dressed to look like the Columbine killers down to the 鈥渘atural selection鈥 and 鈥渨rath鈥 T-shirts they used to wear.

鈥淭he abundance and types of materials that the killers produced resonates with young people in a way that we haven鈥檛 really seen with other school shootings,鈥 91影视s-Wright said, 鈥渨hich has allowed it to perpetuate and live on all these years later.鈥澛

91影视 front page on April 21, 1999, the day after the Columbine High School shooting. At the time, details of the shooting remained unclear. Ultimately, the shooters killed 12 students and a coach before killing themselves.

The creators of those videos, in turn, direct viewers to private, unmonitored channels on Discord and Telegram.听

And that鈥檚 where the really dark stuff happens.听聽聽

By setting up accounts pretending to be minors on social media, Ayad and 91影视s-Wright quickly found 127 videos glorifying a range of mass shooters on TikTok and X, formerly Twitter.

One TikTok video they discovered, which featured the Columbine shooters in fictional Disney posters, had amassed nearly 400,000 views in three months.听

TikTok has since taken down the videos flagged by researchers. But content celebrating the Columbine shooters is still widely available, and easily found, on TikTok and other platforms, despite rules against glorification of violence and real-life attacks.

A spokesperson for TikTok said the company doesn鈥檛 tolerate content like the videos Ayad and 91影视s-Wright found, and that the company employs more than 40,000 trust and safety professionals to moderate content.

鈥淲e're investing over $2 billion in trust and safety efforts this year to provide a safer platform," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Students stand with arms around each other at an impromptu memorial to students killed at Columbine High School on April 21, 1999.

This week, 91影视s-Wright performed a quick search and provided 91影视 with several links to TikTok videos showing school shootings, including some that used imagery from the Columbine attack.听聽聽

Videos on TikTok and elsewhere try to evade detection by blending content that glorifies mass shooters with legitimate educational content, or by using the killers鈥 nicknames or other coded language. Statements like 鈥淚 don鈥檛 condone鈥 or hashtags like 鈥渢rue crime鈥 or 鈥渇ake鈥 are also added to mislead platform moderators. Some accounts switch privacy settings so posts are only available to followers.

While the researchers found videos appearing to show gameplay on the Roblox platform, where users play shared game scenarios mostly built by other users, it was unclear how long 鈥 if at all 鈥 those games ever appeared on Roblox itself. The characters may have been designed using Roblox, without ever being uploaded to the platform.听聽

A spokesperson for Roblox said the company has strict community standards prohibiting 鈥渢he portrayal of sensitive real-world events and content portraying, glorifying, or supporting Terrorist and Violent Extremist organizations.鈥

鈥淲e have a dedicated team focused on proactively identifying and swiftly removing such content as well as banning the individuals who create it,鈥 the spokesperson told 91影视 in an email.听聽

A plaque outside the Columbine memorial pays tribute to the school shooting tragedy 25 years ago.

Despite the attempt at camouflage, accounts are still frequently banned. So, the profiles redirect their followers to less-moderated platforms like Discord and Telegram, Ayad and 91影视s-Wright found. There, open glorification of mass shooters, violent gore and hate speech can be more freely shared. And indoctrination and radicalization are more likely to occur.听

Discord and Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.

In closed discussion groups on Discord, for example, players share tips on building mass casualty simulation games and how to make gaming avatars that look like the Columbine shooters, the researchers said.听

The attackers are commonly referred to and admired, down to details about their haircuts and favorite music. 鈥淚n many respects,鈥 their report notes, 鈥渢he Columbine shootings are considered a foundational event for supporters and content producers of mass casualty attacks.鈥澛

The deadly allure of the dark side

Ryan Broll, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, says the internet is an accelerant for 鈥渄ark fandom鈥 鈥 communities of fans fixated on the perpetrators of violent acts.

鈥淭hese communities usually form online because they are inherently deviant communities and they can more easily find people who share interest in these topics online,鈥 said Broll, who studied a subreddit devoted to Columbine. 鈥淎lthough people have always been interested in crime and violence, the internet is essential to the size and longevity of dark fandoms, like that around Columbine.鈥

Of the hundreds of school shootings across the United States in the last 25 years, Columbine remains the most influential, researchers Jenni Raitanen and Atte Oksanen from the Emerging Technologies Lab at Tampere University in Finland .

Students stand with arms around each other at an impromptu memorial to students killed at Columbine High School on April 21, 1999.

Raitanen and Oksanen attribute the shooting鈥檚 enduring influence to the oft-cited idea that it was retribution for bullying.听聽

鈥淭he Columbine perpetrators claimed that their massacre was a political act, conducted in the name of other oppressed students,鈥 the researchers wrote in a 2018 .听

As such, the two young men sought to serve as spokespeople for what previous researchers called a 鈥渞evolution of the dispossessed,鈥 Raitanen and Oksanen wrote. In essence, they claimed to be carrying out their attack in the name of angry, disaffected and angst-ridden youth everywhere.听

Those ideas were long ago debunked.听

Columbine鈥檚 former principal Frank DeAngelis says much of the Columbine content falsely portrays the Columbine shooters.听

The FBI concluded the killers, who said in home videos that they hoped the attack would inflict 鈥渢he most deaths in 91影视 history,鈥 were driven by a desire for mass carnage and lasting notoriety, not teenage angst.

Former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis speaks during the "Columbine 20 Years Later: A Faith-based Remembrance Service" at Waterstone Community Church on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, 91影视.

Yet today鈥檚 online subculture celebrates many of the same false claims.听

鈥淭he two killers of Columbine are heroes to some of these kids and they shouldn鈥檛 be,鈥 said DeAngelis, who retired in 2014 and assists communities across the country after mass shootings. 鈥淚t scares me.鈥

Finding kinship online can normalize violent urges, says Peter Langman, a psychologist and author of 鈥淲hy Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters鈥 who runs the .

He points to a website devoted to the Columbine massacre and other mass murders. In a recent chat about which serial killer or mass murderer they related to the most, most said the Columbine killers. 鈥淚 also relate to Eric and Dylan,鈥 commented one person. 鈥淟ike most people lol.鈥澛

Three registered users of the website have gone on to commit mass murders, according to Langman.听

鈥淓ven if no one is advocating committing such acts, the fascination, the obsession that some people have may normalize the phenomenon,鈥 he said.

Students take part in a rally for National School Walkout Day to protest school violence on April 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Students from around the nation joined in the walkout against gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

Kris Mohandie, a forensic psychologist who has assessed youth offenders influenced by Columbine, said the identities of susceptible young people can be shaped by the content they interact with and produce online. They are drawn to the Columbine shooters 鈥渂ecause it aligns with dark impulses and their sense of alienation, and what they think looks cool,鈥 Mohandie said.听

That鈥檚 certainly what happened to Lindsay Souvannarath.听

The then-23-year-old student from Geneva, Illinois, was drawn to the story of Columbine via online chat rooms and forums. A budding artist and novelist, she sought feedback from her peers online and eventually fell headfirst into the subculture.听

In a 2019 prison interview with "The Night Time" podcast, Souvannarath, who is now in prison for planning a deadly attack on a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Valentine鈥檚 Day 2015, talked at length about the inspiration she took from Columbine.

It all happened online. Souvannarath met her co-conspirator online when he commented on some of her artwork, and the two swapped music recommendations, fashion tips and theories about the Columbine attackers.听聽聽

鈥淲e thought we were actually them somehow,鈥 Souvannarath told "The Night Time" podcast. 鈥淣ot exactly reincarnations, but more like their spirits had found their ways to us, and we were them.鈥澛

Souvannarath was arrested as she flew into Halifax airport the day before the planned mass shooting. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder two years later and is serving a life sentence in prison.

A 鈥榗ollective fail鈥 for social media platforms聽

Hochhalter, the Columbine survivor, called on Facebook five years ago to , saying she feared they would inspire others.听

One of the pages, which had more than 2,000 likes and shared surveillance video images of the shooters, said its 鈥渕ission鈥 was to 鈥渘ever forget and always honor these heroes.鈥

Facebook deleted the pages within hours, saying they breached the company鈥檚 rules.听

Anne Marie Hochhalter was shot during the attack at Columbine High School in 1999. In the 25 years since, she has been harassed by people obsessed with the Columbine shooters.

As the 25th anniversary of Columbine approaches, Hochhalter said the communities of 鈥淐olumbiners鈥 online have only multiplied. She and other survivors of the attack have received abuse and death threats and have had to call in the FBI to investigate their tormentors, she said.

Meanwhile, on the platforms where the ideas spread, with almost nothing being done about it, she said.

"These people who are at the helm of the social media companies 鈥 those are the true extremists,鈥 Hochhalter said. "Because they're allowing all of it to happen.鈥

A student holds up her hands while taking part in National School Walkout Day to protest school violence on April 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Students from around the nation joined in the walkout against gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

Mohandie says the policies and enforcement at most social media companies are 鈥済rossly inadequate.鈥

Social media companies, some of which are worth billions of dollars, 鈥渉ave a responsibility to take down content glorifying the shooters, he said.听

鈥淭hey have an ethical and social responsibility to do more than what they are doing,鈥 he said. 鈥淭hey get a collective fail. All of them.鈥

After years of building robust content moderation systems, social media companies facing political pressure and economic headwinds have pulled back on gatekeeping, part of an industry trend that is making it harder to distinguish between educational content about Columbine and content that crosses the line.

What鈥檚 more, this is just the kind of content 鈥 dark and edgy 鈥 that is 鈥渁lgorithmically sticky,鈥 said Natasha Zinda, an online content creator and activist. Posts that push right up to, and even beyond a platform鈥檚 rules on conduct, are often exactly the sort of content that gets views, clicks and interaction, she said.

鈥淎lgorithms like to push hate,鈥 she said. 鈥淥ur internet, and our culture on the internet, is all about engagement 鈥 whether it's good or bad.鈥澛

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue researchers agreed.听

Some platforms are doing better than others when it comes to moderating content and deleting posts that violate terms of service, 91影视s-Wright said. But none of the platforms are doing enough, she said.

Better moderation and supervision need to take place at every stop in the radicalization pipeline, 91影视s-Wright said: From platforms where simulations are being created, to TikTok where it is being distributed, to secret spaces like Discord and Telegram where it is being openly discussed and new plots are being planned.听聽

Zinda also noted that the last layer of defense for children who might interact with these communities and this content is parents.

As a mother of three, Zinda said she appreciates how difficult it is for parents to control what their children view online. But every parent whose child is gaming or spending significant time online needs to prioritize talking with them about what they are doing and monitor their children鈥檚 internet activity.

鈥淚t's a click away,鈥 Zinda said. 鈥淎nd you need to be talking with your kids daily about what that is.鈥

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