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What is stochastic terrorism? What’s behind the rise in violence and hate crimes in the United States?
From racially motivated mass shootings to threats to elected officials to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, political violence and hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S. Some psychological experts point the finger at stochastic terrorism.
Read on to learn what stochastic terrorism is and why it could be to blame for this uptick in violent acts.
What Is Stochastic Terrorism?
In 2021, the FBI reported that there were 7,759 recorded hate crimes in the U.S.—the highest number in over a decade. The FBI defines a hate crime as “an offense that is motivated at least in part by a bias against a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” What might be the cause of this rise? What is stochastic terrorism and could it be to blame?
Stochastic terrorism refers to the use of inflammatory language about a particular person or group or of people, intended to inspire violence against them without directly calling for it. This kind of hostile language may be used in television shows, podcasts, social media forums, public speeches, or other forms of mass communication.
Since it tends to be motivated by extremist ideologies—such as racism, xenophobia, and religious fundamentalism—the targets of stochastic terrorism are most often marginalized groups, like immigrants, or religious or sexual minorities. But specific political figures are sometimes targeted as well. For example, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said she receives death threats following any mention of her by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. Similarly, Supreme Court Justices and federal judges across the country have become targets of an increasing number of death threats.
The term “stochastic” refers to a random process, in which outcomes are unpredictable and based on probability. So, this kind of language creates a climate in which violence is more likely to occur, though in unpredictable ways. A key feature of stochastic terrorism is that it’s difficult to directly link the instigator to any specific act of violence. For example, President Donald Trump has been accused of inciting the 2021 U.S. Capitol attack with inflammatory rhetoric in his speech preceding the event. However, without Trump’s direct call for that action, a causal link was difficult to establish, and following an impeachment trial, the Senate ultimately acquitted him of the charge.
As the goal of stochastic terrorism is to create a sense of fear and insecurity, experts say it can be considered a form of psychological warfare that seeks to manipulate public opinion in ways that can destabilize a society.
Stochastic Terrorism Can Lead to Hate Crimes
So, now that we understand what stochastic terrorism is, let’s look at how the process works and how it can lead to hate crimes. In a 2021 publication, Molly Amman and J. Redi Meloy—a former FBI profiler and a forensic psychologist—explain that stochastic terrorism typically involves a three-step process:
- An originator plants the seed of an idea: An influential public figure will use hostile language about an opponent or some targeted demographic, usually in order to promote a political agenda. This may occur in a political speech, a written work, an interview, or even simply a post on Twitter. For example, in pushing for tighter immigration policy, a politician may claim in a public speech that immigrants are more likely to be criminals.
- An amplifier picks up the message and intensifies the hostility: This language is then picked up on by others, who add their own fears and anxieties, amplifying the hostility. When this is done by someone who has an established audience, the message can be disseminated widely, and the hostility becomes increasingly exaggerated as it spreads. For example, an influential podcaster may create an exaggerated characterization of immigrants as violent predators who pose a danger to society—although he falls short of suggesting any acts of violence against them.
- Receivers hear the message and respond with fear: The wider population absorbs the exaggerated characterization, becomes fearful of the target group, and continues to amplify the message of hostility. This can sometimes result in conspiracy theories that take on a life of their own (like the QAnon phenomenon). As the fear spreads and intensifies, eventually it will reach someone who is prepared to carry out a violent act, resulting in hate crimes against members of the target group—in this case, immigrants.
This chain of events separates the perpetrator of the crime from the originator of the message. Since neither the politician nor the podcaster directly called for violence against immigrants, they’ll likely suffer no consequences for the crime. When called out, the originators and amplifiers will often condemn the act of violence, denying that they could have foreseen that outcome.
Does It Have a Political Affiliation?
According to Rachel Kleinfeld, in the Journal of Democracy, historical trends show that acts of politically motivated violence have soared in the last few years. Much of this violence can be traced to the inflammatory rhetoric associated with stochastic terrorism. In the 1960s and ’70s, far-left political groups—for example, anti-war and radical environmentalist groups–-tended to commit the majority of this violence, although it was more often directed at property than people. Today, analysts say the pendulum has swung far-right, and the violence is more often directed toward people.
Kleinfeld says that since 2017, overall public support for political violence has grown among both Democrats and Republicans, although it’s been greater among the latter. However, a University of Chicago study argues that these statistics are overblown, and that almost all Americans support criminal charges for anyone engaging in political violence.
A 2021 American Perspectives Survey showed that those who express the most support for politically motivated violence include:
- White Evangelical Christians who believe social changes are attributable to anti-Christian forces. This group is the most likely to believe the QAnon conspiracies about Satanic Democratic pedophile rings.
- Republicans who believe traditional American values are being eroded—56% of Republicans (and 38% of all Americans) surveyed supported the “use of force” to stop the decline of “traditional values.”
- Both Democrats and Republicans who hold hostile views toward women.
- Those who believe white people experience more discrimination than marginalized groups.
Because stochastic terrorism has been attributed most often to right-wing political ideologies, some on the right believe the term is essentially a tool for restriction of free speech. In other words, when the left argues that to combat the effects of stochastic terrorism, we must strengthen laws against “hate speech,” the right sees this as an attempt to vilify and silence conservative voices. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo makes this argument, saying that after a Fox News appearance, he was linked to the attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He argues that his appearance, in which he discussed his views on drag queens, was not related in any way to that act of violence, and that the accusation of stochastic terrorism was intended to silence his viewpoint.
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