Does the internet breed killers?

Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for killing 77 people in Norway in a bomb and gun rampage last summer.

Story highlights

  • Keen: Breivik captures the delusional, violent, narcissistic nature of digital culture
  • Breivik killed 77 Norwegians in bomb and gun rampage in July 2011
  • Marche: Social networks like Facebook are making us lonely
  • Keen: Violent video games allowed Breivik to "virtualize" killing of real people

The comment on the Facebook page of the Norwegian tabloid newspaper Verdens Gang last July was unequivocal. "The death penalty is the only just sentence in this case!!!!!!" it said. Written by Thomas Indrebo, the "case" to which the message referred was the meticulously planned mass murder of 77 people in Oslo on July 22, 2011by Anders Behring Breivik.

This week, the Breivik case has finally come to Oslo central criminal court. But Indrebo, who, as it happens, had been selected as a "lay" judge (the Norwegian version of the U.S. and UK jury system), wasn't in court. He had been dismissed for his Facebook comment which the case's presiding judge, Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen, suggested could "weaken trust in his impartiality."

Strangely enough, even Breivik, who posted his murderous intentions on his own Facebook page just before the July rampage, might have agreed with Indrebo's Facebook comment. Speaking in court yesterday, Breivik admitted: "There are only two just and fair outcomes of this case. One is an acquittal, the other is capital punishment."

Breivik's bizarre comment captures the baffling nature of a case that has so far lurched from the grotesque public confessional of a mass murderer to the equally tasteless spectacle of a hatemonger whose racist delusions seem to have been fed, in part at least, by the Internet.

Indeed, virtual networks like Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and the World of Warcraft seem to offer as good clues as any to why this 32 year-old man should decide one day to blow up and shoot as many fellow Norwegians as he could.

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Anders Behring Breivik may or may not be found to be clinically insane. But beneath or beside his madness, there's something about Breivik which captures, in extremis, the increasingly delusional, violent and narcissistic nature of our digital culture.

It would, of course, be crass to blame something as tragic as the mass murder of 77 innocent Norwegians on social media. And yet it would be equally irresponsible to simply ignore these signs and refuse to draw any connection at all between Breivik's troubled personality and the broader culture forces in our electronically networked world.

Firstly, there's his self-evidently narcissistic personality which has enabled him to stand in an Oslo court this week and unselfconsciously boast about what he called "the most sophisticated and spectacular political attack in Europe since World War II." It was this same narcissism, of course, that also generated his 1,500 page "2083 Manifesto" as well as his prolific postings on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.

Narcissism, of course, wasn't invented by the Internet and it would be absurd to establish a causal connection between self-love and mass murder. That said, however, today's digital media culture -- which shatters the 20th century mass audience into billions of 21st century authors and enables them all to broadcast their most intimate thoughts to the world -- seems to be making narcissism the default mode of contemporary existence. As Stephen Marche notes in an excellent Atlantic cover story this month about Facebook: "Rising narcissism isn't so much a trend as the trend behind all other trends."

Social networks like Facebook are making us lonely, Marche concludes. The more connected we think we are on social media "communities," he argues, the more isolated and atomized we really are becoming. And if there's one self-evident thing on show this week in Oslo's central court, it is the loneliness of being Anders Behring Breivik.

"July 22 wasn't about me. July 22 was a suicide attack. I wasn't expecting to survive that day. A narcissist would never have given his life for anyone or anything," Breivik said this week in court. But the crime, this me-terrorism, was all about him. He can talk all he likes about his association with obscure racist groups like the Knights Templar, but the truth is that Breivik is totally alone. No friends, no fellow conspirators, no girlfriend, no loved ones. Even his father hadn't spoken to him for years.

Then there's Breivik's reliance on the Internet to learn about the world -- a world that he sees in the stark Manichean terms of evil Moslems and communists versus good Norwegian Christians. When asked this week about the greatest influence on his ideology, Breivik's answer was simple. "Wikipedia", he said. That's what most informed his bizarre worldview.

Perhaps part of the narcissist's affection for Wikipedia lies in its over 10,000 word article about him, an entry that describes him as a "terrorist," includes 200 footnotes and is almost as detailed as the Wikipedia entries on Martin Luther or Karl Marx. Indeed, given the "open" nature of the Wikipedia editorial system, who is to say that the self-obsessed Breivik himself hasn't been contributing to his own entry?

Most troubling of all is Breivik's obsession with the multiplayer role-playing World of Warcraft, a violent online game that he played "full-time" between 2006 and 2007. Indeed, one of the few times that he smiled this week was when the image of his World of Warcraft character was displayed in court.

Some apologists for video games have suggested that Breivik's addiction to World of Warcraft "means nothing at all." But they are wrong. Given his absolute absence of remorse over the murders, it's not hard to imagine that this obsession with violent online games has enabled him to somehow virtualize the killing of real people, transforming them from flesh and blood characters into abstractions.

I have to agree with Thomas Indrebo. The death penalty is, indeed, the only just sentence in the Breivik case. That said, however, this case isn't just about a single delusional character. Breivik's obsession with violent online games, his narcissism, his reliance on Wikipedia and Facebook are warnings about how digital media can corrupt our grasp of reality. Breivik may be a worst case scenario, but I fear that there will be more young men like him in future if virtual reality becomes our only reality.