Around 2010, Lola Aronovich started receiving threats from men who frequented “masculinist forums” — openly misogynist online groups — that she actively monitored. But the Argentine-Brazilian feminist blogger never imagined her experiences would place her on the front lines of combating school shootings in Brazil.

Over a decade after Aronovich started researching them, these masculinist groups have moved from being niche forums on sites like 4chan to large and growing communities on Twitter, Discord, and Telegram. Meanwhile, Aronovich has become one of the most high-profile names helping the Brazilian government break the pipeline between online radicalization and gun violence at academic institutions.

Aronovich is part of an 11-woman interministerial group, set up in late 2022 in the wake of a school shooting in Aracruz, Espírito Santo. A 16-year-old wearing a swastika pinned to a vest had opened fire at a school complex, killing four people. The group was tasked with proposing ways to combat violence at educational institutions.

In its first public-facing document, released in December 2022, the group linked the rise in school shootings in Brazil to online extremism and fake news.

Members of the group told Rest of World they found strong links between online radicalization and violence. Through this document, they want to aid Brazil’s new government in combating this pathway to violence at the source: online communities that groom young men through seemingly innocuous discussions about music, gaming, and internet culture.

The interministerial group’s conclusions confirmed “the problem [of gun violence] is complex and directly involved online (self)radicalization,” Michele Prado, a researcher investigating political debate on digital media at the University of São Paulo, told Rest of World. Prado, who was not part of the research group, has written two books on the radicalization of digital movements in Brazil.

The report said the gun violence problem could be solved by taking steps such as teaching critical media literacy in schools and training educators to spot radicalized children. It also suggested creating a legal and systematized framework for the government to monitor online spaces where extremists work to recruit young people.

Since the report was published, Brazil has launched 1,738 investigations around the issue of school violence. But in April, the usual response of police mobilization was accompanied with a widely disseminated government pamphlet for parents, teachers, and caretakers. It communicated the interministerial group’s advice on identifying and addressing the radicalization that young people might be exposed to online. This was the first time the group’s research was seen and acted upon by the Brazilian population at large. The group continues to meet on a weekly basis.

Since the early 2000s, there have been 16 school shootings in Brazil — four of which took place in the second half of 2022. In total, 35 people have been killed and 72 have suffered injuries in school shootings over the past two decades. 

“The number of school shootings has increased a lot in Brazil, along with the growth of extremist speech,” Catarina de Almeida Santos, one of the researchers from the group, told Rest of World

“The targets of radicalization via extremist right-wing speech are mostly white, heterosexual teenagers, and misogyny plays a crucial part in this process.”

The report found that incitements of violence were often linked to online discourse on sensitive issues such as nationalism, localism, white supremacy, and misogyny. “The targets of radicalization via extremist right-wing speech are mostly white, heterosexual teenagers, and misogyny plays a crucial part in this process,” the report said. It named extremist groups like Frente Integralista Brasileira (FIB) and separatist groups as repeat offenders in the radicalization of Brazilians.

The report said such extremist groups attract and groom young people by engaging with them through internet and gaming culture. It specifically mentioned the playful “use of ‘ironic’ Nazi/fascist/hate speech memes with the aim of relativizing and normalizing violence.” The report also highlighted how extremists use YouTube’s algorithms to attract fans of online games like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft — but then fill the gaming video content with hate speech and far-right grooming.

But Santos does not believe that online gaming is a problem. She disagreed with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s condemning of online gaming, where he stated that there were “only games that teach how to kill.”

“There are no studies that indicate gaming is what radicalized them,” Santos said. “Obviously, in gaming subcommunities there can be people trying to recruit younger people into these extremist communities, but that’s not about the game specifically.”

The report also pointed out issues that prevent authorities from taking action. “It is necessary to train civil servants in the police, public ministries, public attorneys and public defenders and the judiciary,” it noted, since authorities are currently unable to identify, track, and punish the perpetrators of radicalizing content across the internet.

These lessons, however, are not new for the likes of Aronovich. In 2016, she tweeted a 2009 chat log in which two members of far-right masculinist groups — Marcelo Valle Silveira Mello and Emerson Eduardo Rodrigues — talked about a potential plot to kill her husband and mother. In 2018, Brazil passed a law that carries her name, under which online threats and harassment against women are investigated as federal crimes.

Aronovich told Rest of World she has pressed charges 12 times over the past 15 years against members of masculinist groups who have threatened her. 

Though all school shootings cannot be linked to masculinism, the anti-women radicalization of many shooters was evident in the way they carried out their attacks.

On April 7, 2011, for instance, a shooting happened at a school in Realengo, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. It was later revealed that the shooter was connected to the masculinist communities Aronovich has monitored over the years, and witnesses to the shooting said he specifically targeted the girls in the school. “He shot the boys only to hurt them, but he shot the girls to really kill them,” a witness told the press at the time.