Who was Nasim Aghdam? The blogs of the YouTube shooter
On April 3, 2018, YouTube's headquarters came under siege. An assailant wielding a semi-automatic handgun entered the premises and opened fire indiscriminately on staff. More than 1,000 people work in the sprawling office. The shooter emptied a clip of ammunition, wounding three people, then committed suicide before law enforcement could apprehend her. But what made the incident noteworthy, apart from the choice of target, was the identity of the culprit.
Nasim Najafi Aghdam did not fit the stereotypical profile of a mass shooter. For one thing, she was female, which made her something of a rarity. Consider the fact that a 2014 FBI study shows that, out of 160 active shooter incidents perpetrated in the United States between 2000 and 2013, only six such crimes were perpetrated by women. Aghdam wasn't an angry young man, or a misanthropic loner, or a member or the alt-right. Neither was she a radical terrorist, motivated by religious fundamentalism. On the contrary, she was liberal in many respects: an animal rights activist who seemed to abhor violence or cruelty. Her act of attempted mass murder wasn't purely sparked by aggression (although that was undoubtedly a factor), but was politically motivated. Furthermore, before turning on the company that had provided her with an outlet and an income, she'd been an active vlogger.
But Aghdam has also left behind years and years of content for investigators and criminal psychologists to pick apart. Many mass shooters, such as James Holmes or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, keep detailed journals and records of their planned rampages in home videos or in notebooks. Aghdam lived her life online as a content provider and freely shared everything to subscribers in the form of blogs, video essays and Instagram posts. Examining her social media history provides us with a disturbing picture of her deteriorating mental state, and the chain of events that led to her pulling the trigger.
Aghdam was only a few days away from her birthday when she carried out her attempted shooting. The 39-year-old Iranian immigrant came to the United States along with her family in 1996. Aghdam lived in Southern California and was a professional blogger and a viral celebrity on Persian social media. She frequently discussed Persian culture, veganism and animal cruelty while also performing music parodies and providing her followers with exercise tutorials. Online she went by the handles 'Nasim Na' and 'Nasim Sabz'.
Aghdam also ran several of her own websites, which included NasimSabz.com and NasimABC.com, all of which were written in Persian, featured graphic images of slaughtered animals and admonished visitors for wearing fur jackets or having pre-marital sex. She would also often make posts about life as a practitioner of the Baha’i faith, a persecuted minority in Muslim-majority Iran. She was rumoured to have owned and operated the website PeaceThunder.com, a website which provides information about veganism, animal rights issues and health and dietary advice. The earliest archive of this site dates back to May of 2011.
However, YouTube was the place where she was most visible and most active and she had videos in Persian, English and Turkish, where her bizarre sketches and often surreal rants earned her equal amounts of admiration and ridicule. Her behaviour and appearance led many commenters to question whether or not she was mentally unwell. In a post addressing this concern, Aghdam stated: "I don’t have any special mental or physical disease, but I live on a planet filled with disease, disorders, perversions and injustices."
Spree shooters often harbour a persecution complex. Sometimes, as a result of a lifetime of bullying, this paranoia is not unwarranted. They become suspicious of others, resent those they believe to have done them harm and indulge in vengeful fantasies. Aghdam believed that America was decadent, corrupt and immoral and that people there were out to get her. In one video she stated "[In Iran] they kill you by axe. Here they kill you with cotton." This Persian expression refers to when something that appears harmless turns out to be bad for you. Aghdam believed that YouTube was ultimately just as censorious and oppressive as the current Iranian regime; it just had better PR.
The final straw came in March of 2017, after the YouTube ad boycott gained traction. After British newspaper the Times of London wrote an investigative article showing that advertisements run by the British government and other private sector companies, were appearing on YouTube videos which appeared to support terrorists, Google was forced to reinforce stricter policies on the content available on the platform. As a result, a number of vloggers found that their videos had been demonetised without being granted an appeal.
Aghdam told family members that she “hated” YouTube. The site was apparently now censoring her videos and paying her less money. Her financial situation was now drastic, as a result, since the money she made through ad revenue was her sole source of income. In a video posted to Facebook, she complained that YouTube was apparently restricting her workout videos to older audiences, which meant that she was losing money.
"This is what they are doing to vegan activists and many other people who try to promote healthy, humane and smart living — people like me are not good for big business, like for animal business, medicine business and for many other businesses. That’s why they are discriminating and censoring us,” she stated. In another blog post, she wrote: "When searching for my website in google, at top of link they add ‘an error occurred’ but there is no error! They add it to keep you from my visiting my site."
She added: "There is no free speech in the real world and you will be suppressed for telling the truth that is not supported by the system. Videos of targeted users are filtered and merely relegated, so that people can hardly see their videos! There is no equal growth opportunity on YouTube or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!"
Aghdam's Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts have since been deleted, but numerous videos have been duplicated or archived elsewhere. YouTube's content guidelines have not changed since the incident.
Perhaps there are people out there who sympathise with Aghdam. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to her suicide, she appeared to be wrestling with personal demons and mental illness. Maybe she was a victim of bigotry, and maybe YouTube did censor her videos. But the politics, background and circumstances of a potential spree shooter shouldn't matter. I believe that if someone attempts to kill innocent people to prove a point then they deserve disdain. Aghdam wasn't a revolutionary; just another angry person with a gun. These days, they seem to be a dime a dozen.