Connor Betts, the mass shooter who killed ten people in Dayton, Ohio last week, was an avid Twitter user. Betts retweeted left-leaning comedians, joked about the gun girl getting robbed and even used the word “leftist” in his Twitter bio. And those facts were enough for conservative media and President Trump himself to call him a left wing extremist and condemn his attack as politically motivated.
There’s only one problem: a Twitter account isn’t the same as a mass murdering manifesto.
Treating Betts as a rabid leftist political murderer is an obvious play for the right. It’s a clear response to the shooting in El Paso mere hours earlier, before which the shooter posted a manifesto online expressing his desire to kill Latino immigrants. A fair amount of the screed, particularly in regards to immigrant invasion, could’ve been lifted from several Fox News broadcasts. The connection to conservative media and Trump’s own rhetoric were painfully clear.
So when it became obvious that the Dayton shooter leaned left politically and was a registered Democrat, right wing media had its cudgel to use against anyone describing the El Paso shooting as a politically motivated hate crime.
Betts was a disturbed individual who had an unhealthy obsession with severe violence. Classmates said he kept a rape and kill list in high school and even showed a video of a mass shooting on a first date. But for as disturbed as he was in real life, Betts’ Twitter feed wasn’t particularly offensive. In fact, it didn’t look or sound much different from other left-leaning people.
And that’s where the connection falls apart.
Extreme online sarcasm exists on both far ends of the political spectrum. But the difference comes down to intent and literal consequences. Far right internet vitriol has led to actual domestic terror attacks, El Paso just being the most recent.
Even the most benign far right sarcasm often covers for extreme views that people actually hold. Once the “OK” gesture was identified as a symbol of white nationalist solidarity, it became a joke on the right to use the pose in every picture. Laura Ingraham’s half-heil at the 2016 Republican National Convention also falls under this distinction—she believes and broadcasts white nationalist rhetoric, sure. But actually offering up a physical gesture is designed to trigger the libs.
Far left sarcasm just doesn’t have as much vitriol behind it. Phrases like “eat the rich” have actual belief behind them, but they’re vague enough to make their sarcasm obvious. Leftist sarcasm is easier to identify and joke-telling is simply better, in part because it’s being done by actual comedians and funny people on Twitter. But it’s also fueled by the conservative outrage machine, which makes it seem far more serious than it actually is.
When Twitter user Krang T. Nelson made his now-famous Antifa supersoldier joke back in 2017, right wing media treated November 4th like the impending apocalypse. Rob Rousseau sparked similar outrage when he joked that he’d rather his daughter date at MS-13 member than a Republican. The sarcasm in both tweets is clear, but they were conflated by media who either couldn’t identify it or (more likely) purposely ignored it.
Conservative media’s outrage over Betts’ Twitter feed doesn’t just boil down to the left having a better sense of humor than the right. It’s a pernicious attempt to villainize anyone who likes or retweets leftist snark, equating them with an irredeemable mass murderer. The connection is dubious at best. But given the disregard for Betts’ actual mental state and right wing media’s desperation to deflect from their own role in mass murder, it’s hardly any surprise.