Is Libs of TikTok a Stochastic Terrorist? Am I???

The other day I received this email from the social network Mastodon, indicating that they had removed one of my posts I made back in December, which read “you may think Christmas Vacation aged poorly bc people today won’t understand the Boomer assumption that a Christmas bonus will cover the down payment on a pool, but it actually aged very well bc the message is that you should kidnap your CEO at gunpoint to get what you deserve.”

They explained that they removed the post because it violated their guideline, “No incitement of violence or promotion of violent ideologies.”

Little old me? Inciting violence? I appealed, explaining that this was simply a silly joke about capitalism. But it also made me wonder: if someone out there were a huge fan of mine but could not understand humorous exaggeration, and immediately after reading that they took their beat-up RV to their boss’s house and pointed a shotgun at him until he agreed to give out Christmas bonuses, would I be guilty of a crime? Would I be ethically in the wrong? And would I feel bad?

No. To all three. End of video. Bye!

Okay, just kidding. Today I wanna talk about a little thing called “stochastic terrorism,” and unfortunately we’re going to be hitting some pretty depressing topics, including acts of violence like murder, bullying, and suicide, so if any of that is particularly upsetting for you right now, you might wanna skip this one.

I was actually thinking about this topic a lot even before I got that notice from Mastodon, thanks to the recent interview Taylor Lorenz conducted with Chaya Raichik, the awful human behind the “Libs of TikTok” account. Raichik absolutely fucking hates trans people and immigrants, and so she uses her large platform to target those kinds of people with hatred, mockery, and threats. Her fans are then free to go off and harass those otherwise random innocent people as they see fit, which people almost immediately began to notice. Raichik’s current social media profile pic is her proudly holding up the front page of USA Today with the headline “When Libs of TikTok posts, threats increasingly follow.”

As one example, in 2022 an English teacher in Oklahoma named Tyler Wrynn posted on social media to tell LGBTQ+ students who had been shunned by their parents that he was proud of them. Raichik posted him on Libs of TikTok, after which her followers doxxed and harassed him until he resigned.

But wait, it gets so much worse. In January of this year, the Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Education decided to name Raichik, who lives in Los Angeles, to the state’s “library media advisory committee” so she could help them fight the woke left.

The following month, Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student in the same Oklahoma school district Wrynn was bullied out of, was severely beaten by classmates in a restroom, after at least a year of relentless bullying over his gender identity (Benedict preferred either he/him and they/them pronouns). He went to the hospital for treatment, where a police officer dissuaded his family from filing a report because it would be a shame to get those students in trouble over something so minor. Benedict was sent home, where he collapsed and died the following day. The police and medical examiner claim he died of suicide, while many people, including Benedict’s family members, are understandably suspicious of their decision and are continuing to investigate.

Regardless of whether or not Benedict died directly from the brutal assault or from suicide as the result of a year of bullying and a final brutal assault, it’s clear to me that Chaya Raichik has blood on her hands. This is a concept, relatively new, known as stochastic terrorism. It’s so named for a statistical phenomenon in which an event may have a high likelihood of occurring, but you can’t predict when or how it happens. In this case, the stochastic terrorist isn’t one of the kids who physically assaulted Benedict, but Chaya Raichik. She didn’t land the punches, but she instigated the attack with her posts. Lucky for her, stochastic terrorism by definition comes with built in plausible deniability: she didn’t tell anyone at that high school to find a nonbinary student and beat them up. She just happened to target LGBTQ students on a platform with millions of followers, mocking and dehumanizing an already marginalized group, in Benedict’s very school district which she now helps oversee. We couldn’t predict who would actually commit the violence, or how, or when or where, but the larger her audience grows and the more times she targets a particular person, area, or marginalized group, the greater the chance that someone will do something.

It’s that plausible deniability that makes stochastic terrorism legal here in the United States, protected by the First Amendment. Raichik knows and enjoys this, as you can see in this Tweet where she responds to the Oklahoma Pride Alliance not even mentioning her:

“Please share the information on how you “know this is a direct result of hateful rhetoric”?” 

It’s the terrorist’s equivalent to “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you.”

Raichik, somewhat hilariously, thought that “stochastic terrorism” was a term made up just for her, which should illustrate not just how often her posts lead to violence but also how stupid and narcissistic she is.

In reality of course, she’s just the latest in a long line of stochastic terrorists, like Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, and Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly called Dr. George Tiller “Baby Killer” on his popular Fox News show until an anti-abortion activist shot him in the head in 2009, killing him. O’Reilly, of course, denied all responsibility. Plausible!

As this is a fairly new-ish concept, sociologists are still working out exactly what does and does not count as stochastic terrorism. For instance, in the 2007 book “The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij give as one example Floyd Corkins, a gay rights activist who planned to commit a mass murder at the anti-gay Family Research Council, so chosen because the Southern Poverty Law Center had listed them as a hate group and had their headquarters marked on a map. Dr. James Angove, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, argues in this paper from last year that without considering the intent of the alleged terrorist, we risk an overly broad definition that would allow the actual hate groups to play victim: SPLC never intended or encouraged anyone to murder people at the Family Research Council. They just (correctly) labeled them an anti-gay hate group. Similarly, if someone murders Chaya Raichik because USA Today labeled her a stochastic terrorist, that doesn’t now make USA Today the stochastic terrorists. Or me, but just to be clear, please do not murder anyone! Even people I don’t like! Thank you.

And on that note, in addition to intent, Angove argues that it also matters whether the alleged “stochastic terrorist” is targeting someone “rightly” or “wrongly.” Things may be different if the SPLC had included, say, a random animal shelter on their map of hate groups and someone went there to murder people. If someone prominent, let’s say Elon Musk, spread information that Democratic elite were using a Washington, DC pizza place to harbor child sex slaves, and they really were, that would be good and helpful. But if that isn’t true, if that’s just a completely bananas made-up lie, and someone goes to the pizza place with an assault rifle, that would be very, very bad. That would be a terrorism. Oops!

I agree with Angove: we may not always be able to know the true intent of a stochastic terrorist, and we may not always know if something is entirely true or if it’s disinformation, but we aren’t idiots. In most cases, reasonable people can work through these issues to give a good idea of what is and is not “terrorism.” He even includes this helpful example:

“…left-wing groups of the 1970s/80s agitating against capitalist oligarchs. If the rhetoric of such groups putatively inspired violence but consisted of such true claims as those about, say, capitalist exploitation of labour, differential ownership of the means of production, and so forth, then we could hardly look to the speaker(s) as providing anything inflammatory to violence.”

Thank you, Dr. Angove, I will be sending this to Mastodon immediately. Anyway, he goes on:

“On the other hand, were their claims (poised in front of an audience with heightened fear and worry) to include that workers in some factory had been beheaded over minor transgressions, that the bosses were not merely selfish but also animals, virus-like, or a different “race” or species, and so on – in such a scenario the language used is far more obviously inflammatory, and it is so because of the exaggerations and outright falsehoods it contains as part of the demonisation (the sort of falsity in speech, further, that is not uttered mistakenly).”

That’s why, Angove argues, dehumanization is also an integral part of the definition of stochastic terrorism.

You may notice that so far, the only clear examples of stochastic terrorism I’ve given are rightwingers, and the examples from the leftwing are more complicated and not actually fitting the definition. Is it because I’m biased? No! I mean, I obviously am biased towards the left, but Kurt Braddock, the author of the 2020 book “Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization,” had this to say in an interview with Vox:

“If we just look at the data at the number of attacks that have occurred, the number of people who’ve been arrested for plots, the number of individuals who have actually cited things that have been said by elected leaders, the right wing violence far outpaces left wing violence. That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened on the left. But if we look at raw numbers of how much it occurs, and even scarier, how often it seems that right wing public officials seem to be perfectly happy to use [it] as a persuasive communication strategy, it’s not even close.”

While leftwing politicians tend to vigorously condemn violence done in their names or to their opponents, rightwing politicians tend to simply ignore it in the best circumstances. In the worst, they appoint the stochastic terrorists to their state committees overseeing school libraries, which is…terrifying, to be blunt. Which is the point of terrorism: it’s very unlikely that you or I will be the direct victim of this kind of violence, but we are all indirectly affected by the chilling effect of terrorism. We may be less inclined to be publicly gay or trans, less inclined to rock the boat, to support each other, for fear that another “lone wolf” might strike again.

So what do we do about it? Well, obviously a little moderation on platforms like Xitter would be nice, but let’s not get crazy.

Braddock points out that we can take lessons from the people who have been studying the spread of misinformation for decades, who have found that the best cure is actually prevention. Specifically, we can “inoculate” people against misinformation and also against radicalization:

“…what I might do is go to somebody and tell them, “Listen, I know you’re not violent, I know you have no intention of becoming violent. But there are these actors out there who are going to make certain statements that will justify violence against others, and they’re trying to get you to consider maybe engaging in violence.” Then you provide the target with different counter arguments against that particular idea or that particular course of action. There’s 60 years of research on this strategy, typically in health communication and more standard political communication.”

“If I provide someone with an inoculation message that undermines the strategy of this implicit incitement — if I get to those people and tell them about this particular strategy before they’re exposed to it, they’re much less likely to be influenced by it. I think this goes part and parcel with just a larger emphasis on media literacy in the United States. We are so media illiterate, not just kids who are kind of engaging with online content, disinformation, and conspiracy theories with nothing to defend themselves against it. But adults too, we need to help people do a better job of parsing apart ideas that they see online and recognizing when they’re being manipulated.”

So, there’s your homework, I guess! Go forth and give the “Fox News” vaccine to someone in your life. If it’s not too late. If it IS too late, again, I cannot stress this enough, do NOT enact violence upon them. Unless they’re your boss and it’s Christmas Eve and you got a Jelly of the Month Club membership instead of a down payment on a new in-ground pool. Then MAYBE some light kidnapping. I’m kidding! Don’t do that. Historically, things have always gone very well for me when I suggest to my audience “don’t do that” so I’m sure this will be fine.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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