Wired, January 2019
When President Trump tweeted a video of himself body-slamming the CNN logo in 2017, most people took it as a stupid joke. For Cesar Sayoc, it may have been a call to arms: Last October the avowed Trump fan allegedly mailed a pipe bomb to CNN headquarters.
No one told Sayoc to do it, but the fact that it happened was really no surprise. In 2011, after the shooting of US representative Gabby Giffords, a Daily Kos blog warned of a new threat the writer called stochastic terrorism: the use of mass media to incite attacks by random nut jobs—acts that are “statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” The writer had in mind right-wing radio and TV agitators, but in 2016, Rolling Stone accused then-candidate Trump of using the same playbook when he joked that “Second Amendment people” might “do” something if Hillary Clinton won the election.
Of course, Trump’s people later said he meant they might … “vote.” That’s how it works: Stochastic terrorism lets bullies operate in the open with full deniability, since the random element erases any provable causation.
Tellingly, the word stochastic comes from the Greek stochastikos, meaning “proceeding by guesswork” and “skillful in aiming.” Both are apt here. It takes a master demagogue to weaponize unstable individuals and aim them at political enemies.