In early February, 2013, former LAPD officer and Naval Reservist, Christopher Dorner, posted an 11-page manifesto on his Facebook page detailing, among other things, how he had been wronged by the LAPD, and how he intended to violently get revenge on the individuals responsible. The posting was shortly followed by the alleged murder of two peripherally related civilians and a police officer. These killings activated one of the largest manhunts in LAPD history. There are a number of variables that make Dorner’s story noteworthy. One was the long, detailed and morphing quality of his manifesto. Another was that he actually did some of what he claimed he was going to do. And yet another was the broad and diverse affect his story had on the public consciousness.
At its core, his story up until he posted his manifesto was familiar and relatable. He claimed to be a victim of the Blue Code of Silence, filing a report against a superior officer of his who he felt had used excessive force against a handcuffed suspect. That was a major career altering event, but he also described numerous occasions of implicit and explicit racism from fellow officers and a holistic refusal by the department to recognize and censure such behavior. Standing up for and pursuing his beliefs, according to his manifesto, ultimately cost him his job, his marriage and his emotional health. He had had enough. He felt like he had nothing left to lose, and no more to gain. So in order to restore some internal sense of balance and justice, he felt he had to exact revenge.
We've been discussing, at length, Dorner's powerful use of Social Media to transmit his voice to the whole world. It serves as a perfect example of Social Media’s ability to connect one person to many. And in fact it's a good example of how the act of speaking to all the people you know on Facebook can turn into speaking to everybody. There is no doubt in my mind that Dorner was aware of the impact posting a message on Facebook could have. Though it is unclear whether he had conceived of it getting as big as it actually did. It seems likely that our collective use, and our perception of other inflatable messages on Social Media, led Dorner to the logical default use of Facebook. It may have been his only subscription. He clearly had more to say than 140 characters. And if he wasn't blogging already, one manifesto would not have earned him an audience. The industry practice of placing long-form opinions in a dedicated personal narrative space and then linking to them from your arsenal of other Social Media outlets was clearly not a part of his routine. Rather, Facebook was his social portal. It's the conduit through which he could reach most of the people with whom he ever cared to connect. He knew what he was preparing to do. He knew that this would probably be his last chance to speak, or be heard. He probably knew that if he was ever given the opportunity to live, and speak publicly, it would be to answer questions under interrogation or in court, not his feelings about former friends and instructors or opinions about celebrity and social issues. As a result, his manifesto took on the responsibilities of multiple expressions.
First, the goal of his manifesto was to gain public awareness and support for exposing the corrupt fraternity of the LAPD. Second, the manifesto functioned as an overt threat to his enemies. As a vehicle for psychological warfare, its intent was to shake the confidence of those who would employ predictable tactics against him and also to amplify the fear felt by those he would threaten to hunt. The third goal, or function really, was as his last will and testament. Well, a will, a suicide note, an apology letter and a kiss off. This is the point where Christopher Dorner the person, not the warrior, not the whistleblower, got to say his goodbyes, but also got to unload all the subjective, discombobulated musings he had on the world he lived in, just one more time.
Did he achieve his goals? I would say yes. Completing his revenge list would probably have redirected the conversations away from his grievances and given his critics a stronger foothold in condemning him. What wound up happening instead was that even critiques about his criminality, his mental health or his record had to compete with the discussions about the institutionalization of LAPD conduct, procedure and incompetence, the mobilizing effect on those who already believed the police to be bullies and racists and snowballing narrative about the abandonment of due process in contemporary America. Groups that didn't know him personally rallied to show their support for his cause. A protest was loosely called for outside LAPD Headquarters and people showed up. Celebrities tweeted about his story. People began to research his claims. The LAPD Police Chief stated that they would reopen the case that got him fired. And of course, memes metastasized.
In many ways, Christopher Dorner's use of Social Media has similarities to that of the Westboro Baptist Church in the sense that they aimed to get a large group’s attention, ultimately as a call to action. The goal of WBC’s social media presence is to spread their brand. And their brand is hate. What they do most is/was picket funerals and file lawsuits. And while they haven’t had one singular most impactful transmission through social media, the content and utility of their tweets are crafted to engender more conversation and affinity than they are to get tangible results. And though their agendas are profoundly different, their sense of who they are, what their goals are and what they do have some resonating likeness.
Westboro Baptist Church knows exactly what they are doing. They are clear on their message. They feel very strongly against a group, or that a group’s behavior is wrong. And no matter how wrong it is, that group has a lot of members and strength. This adversarial perspective puts WBC and Dorner in the role of the underdog. Theirs is a David and Goliath story, and as such must be pushed regardless of the cost, and regardless of the probability in their favor. This is a common way to inspire zealotry, resilience and perseverance. In reference to Metaphors of Protest: A Classification of Motivations for Collective Action, they would be categorized as “Intuitive Theologians” because their mantra is, “we could easily lose, and yet we still HAVE to do this.”
WBC is well trained and educated to attack and defend against those who oppose them. The Phelps family has a double digit count of lawyers among them, and vehemently call upon the First Amendment to protect their expressions. They file a high volume of lawsuits with the hopes of defendants settling, and generate attention in the process. And they know exactly how Social Media works, complete with Re-Tweeting, hashtagging and leveraging bad press. Alternatively, Dorner developed the skills he needed while in service. He got high scores in marksmanship and praise from his instructors. He knew all of the police department’s standard operating procedures, and tactical protocols. He knew how to anticipate plays, and presumably how to misdirect people from his trail.
In regards to message delivery, both Dorner and WBC understood the volume and value of projecting their voices through Social Media rather than traditional forms of communication. Dorner didn’t send his manifesto to a newspaper like Ted Kaczynski, and WBC doesn’t just stand in front of the White House. Though it looks like they did try to take out ads. Dorner’s letter would have aroused suspicion if left for his mother, but he knew that it would reach more people, and importantly, those named in it, if he posted it online and it was findable and could be disseminated. WBC doesn't change their content very often, but that doesn't keep them from Tweeting. Margie Phelps has over 17,000 tweets, and 200 more than when our class' group presented about them last week. WBC even retweets posted criticism and satire about their mission, knowing that when people mock them, they are continuing the conversation for free.
Their goals are similar too. Both Dorner and the WBC intentionally defy social mores and widely held morality, even in the obvious contradiction to scripture-based imperatives. Ironically, taking it upon themselves to exact the will of god, or their own version of justice, is the aspect that they each feel so righteous about, and yet those actions are the barriers to entry for potential sympathizers. They want to reach vast numbers of strangers with their perspectives, and yet they expect to leverage bad press as a way to stick in the public consciousness.
On one hand, that’s a very successful tactic. On the other hand, they empower their opponents to get resources and public support against them. And as a result, they are not always able to do everything they say they will do. For example, the cost of traveling to funerals all over the country has limited WBC's ability to disrespect many visible funerals in person. But also, claiming that they will, in the case of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, inspired preemptive White Knight strikes by Anonymous who doxed the members of WBC and hacked their Twitter accounts.
Despite these commonalities, Dorner and the Westboro Baptist Church are fundamentally different. Dorner's world view played the extremes. He was seeking love, support and acceptance while at the same time expressing himself violently and permanently. Westboro deals in none of that currency. For one, WBC functions under the expectation that they haven't done anything illegal, despite how vile their messages and behavior are. Secondly, they cannot be stopped by any one adversary, like the LAPD. There is no polar opposite, no anti-villain to their anti-heroics. They know this, and leverage that for their modus operandi. Dorner lived in a "me vs. the world" dynamic, though he believed that if the World heard his story, they would support him against his nemesis, the LAPD. In many ways, he was right to perceive his struggle that way. However, recognizing the obstacle is not the same as choosing the tool to overcome it.
If Christopher Dorner's goal was to simply pick off his whole list Sudden Impact style, then he may have wanted to deliver his last message with some sort of time release mechanism. If he had wanted to fully portray himself as a victim in the court of public opinion, he should not have killed civilians. And his message that the LAPD is a corrupt fraternity of ill-behaving racists gets diluted by not only his actions, but his off-topic rantings. However, if he wanted to expose details of HOW the LAPD systematically protects itself from criticism he did it. And if he wanted to agitate public support for the long-standing, widely held belief that police departments everywhere suffer from the same poor decorum, then he did that too. However, that wasn’t done by himself, many people felt that way already. And he became a catalyst for voices en masse to express that. He even primed an environment where police would naturally behave badly and aggressively by shooting civilians and assassinating him in the cabin.In the end, his voice, more than his actions, appealled to people who have been victimized by police. And that group is large. So transmitting through Facebook became the best, most efficient delivery method.