BuzzFeed Says Adam Lanza’s Alleged Online History Is “Chilling.” It Isn’t.

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July 2 2013 5:15 PM

BuzzFeed Says Adam Lanza’s Alleged Online History Is “Chilling.” It Isn’t.

49kills
A screenshot from the computer game Combat Arms

Screenshot courtesy of combatarms.nexon.net

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On Monday, BuzzFeed ran two stories piggybacking on a Hartford Courant piece reporting that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza may have edited Wikipedia articles about mass murderers, and posted about guns and computers on various online gun forums. BuzzFeed advanced the Courant’s reporting by presenting the username allegedly associated with Lanza—“Kaynbred”—and noting that somebody with that username played almost 5,000 matches of an online multiplayer first-person shooter called Combat Arms, racking up 83,496 kills. “[I]n the context of Lanza’s other online activity—obsessive edits to mass murder Wikipedia entries and frequent activity on gun forums—the sheer amount of time spent playing a game this focused on purchasing realistic weapons and using them to kill, is chilling,” writes BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein.

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Interesting? Sure. Chilling? Not really. If BuzzFeed’s point is that a mass murderer showed some interest in mass murder, well, stop the presses. If the point is that these activities were clues to Lanza’s mania, and that he could have been stopped if somebody would have noticed them in time, well, that’s just stupid.

For one thing, the “Kaynbred” username hardly made “obsessive” edits to mass media Wikipedia entries. As the Courant piece makes clear, “the user who authorities believe was Newtown gunman Adam Lanza” made 12 total edits with this account, to articles about school shooter Kip Kinkel and a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal, among others. Here’s the Courant:

The poster also revised entries about the October 1991 massacre at Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in which 23 were killed and 20 more injured and the 1988 massacre at ESL Inc., a high-technology software manufacturing company in Sunnyvale, Calif. The gunman at ESL, Richard Farley, killed seven people and wounded four others.
The poster believed to be Lanza delves deeply into Wikipedia's account of the ESL shooting, revising it on at least four occasions in February 2010 and adding such details as the caliber and manufacturer of weapons in Farley's arsenal.

Sounds scary, right? And maybe it is. But the revision history of the Richard Farley article is very, very busy, with lots of users making lots of edits to the piece. On May 4, 2007, for instance, a Wikipedia editor called “Kschang77” made seven different edits to the Farley article. The extent of Lanza’s alleged work on this article—four edits, all made within 30 minutes of one another—does not greatly differ from the edits done by these myriad other people who presumably aren’t mass murderers. And while his fixation on the weaponry used by Farley might seem telling in light of future events, intense attention to small details is a hallmark of many dedicated Wikipedia editors.

The time Lanza may have spent on various gun forums, in my opinion, is similarly non-noteworthy. BuzzFeed notes that the user in question “was mainly curious about the legality of owning certain firearms,” but that he also spent time “talking to other users about computers.” (Post titles included “What are the specs of your home desktop?” and “Adding RAM?”) As anyone who has spent more than one minute on any gun forum knows, they are filled with a lot of technical nerdspeak and aggrieved bluster. Lanza’s alleged contributions there are no less nerdy and much less blustery than any other poster on these forums.

What about all the time Lanza allegedly spent with the video game Combat Arms? The BuzzFeed piece mentions that the user’s “preferred ‘primary’ weapon, the M16A3, is a military variant of the Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle that Lanza used. His preferred ‘secondary’ weapon, the G23 pistol, strongly resembles Lanza’s Glock 10mm handgun.”

Creepy? Not really. You know who else used a M16A3 in Combat Arms? Every single person who has ever played Combat Arms. According to a wiki devoted to the game, “The M16A3 Assault Rifle is the default primary weapon in Combat Arms. Every player is granted one when they create an account so there is no cost involved to use it.” In other words, it’s the virtual gun that newbies use.

The G23 is a newbie gun, too. According to the same wiki, Combat Arms players advance in “ranks” (sergeant, lieutenant, etc.) based on the amount of time they spend playing the game. As you advance in rank, you’re allowed to buy better virtual weapons at the in-game shop. You only need to be of “Recruit” rank to buy the G23 pistol; it’s one of the first pistols that a player is allowed to buy. So the two guns Adam Lanza allegedly favored were the guns made available to the absolute least experienced Combat Arms players. The fact that Lanza allegedly used virtual guns similar to the ones he used in real life doesn’t mean that he used Combat Arms to train for the Sandy Hook shooting. It means that he didn’t spend a lot of time playing Combat Arms!

As Bernstein himself admits, Lanza’s statistics “are not unusual for a dedicated player; in fact, Lanza was not ‘ranked’ according to the official game hierarchy.” Combat Arms is the sort of game that a lot of people liked to play. The fact that Lanza was apparently one of those people isn’t suspicious; it just means that he was a young male who lived in the 21st century. There is very little credible research linking time spent playing violent video games with real-life aggression. Adam Lanza didn’t shoot up Sandy Hook Elementary because he played violent video games. Adam Lanza played violent video games and also shot up Sandy Hook Elementary. Correlation is not causation. And vaguely interesting facts from a mass murderer’s past are not always “chilling” details.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.