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New York Mass Shooter Followed Footsteps of Previous Attackers Online, Investigation Finds

After a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 10 people and wounded three at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, officials launched an investigation into the attacker’s motivations and background. Yesterday, they released their findings in a report, declaring that fringe online platforms and livestreaming websites “were weaponized to publicize and encourage copycat violent attacks; and a lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability of these platforms allowed hateful and extremist views to proliferate online, leading to radicalization and violence.”

The report from the Office of the New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Investigative Report on the role of online platforms in the tragic mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14, 2022, found that “this attack is part of an epidemic of mass shootings often perpetrated by young men radicalized online by an ideology of hate.” The report examined the precise mechanisms that allowed the 18-year-old white male shooter in Buffalo to see prior mass shootings, plan the attack in Buffalo, and “correctly expect that his manifesto and video would be widely shared.”  

Investigators reviewed thousands of pages of documents, social media content, and policies practiced by online platforms used by the shooter, including 4chan, 8kun, Reddit, Discord, Twitch, and YouTube. Some of these platforms are “anonymous, virtually unmoderated,” the report said, and that refusal to moderate content “ensures that these platforms are and remain breeding grounds for racist hate speech and radicalization.”

Shortly before the attack, the shooter shared a manifesto online describing his racist beliefs and hoping to provoke future mass shootings, similar to the methods used in the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre at two mosques. The Christchurch shooter was lauded as a cult hero in online right-wing extremist forums after livestreaming his attack, the report noted.

“The Buffalo shooter may have acted alone, but he saw himself as following in the footsteps of others,” the report said. “In the past two decades, violent white supremacists worldwide have ritualized a chilling sequence of events: commit a mass shooting or another atrocity, publish a manifesto, and wait for the next mass casualty. The murders these extremists commit and the manifestos they write are honed into a single weapon to radicalize others and bring about future violence against those perceived as undesirable.”

The report noted that the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto “offered a pastiche of different racist theories and memes largely copied from extremist message boards and manifestos left by past mass shooters.” His document plagiarized liberally from the Christchurch manifesto, overlapping 63 percent and lifting word-for-word for 23 percent of the document.

This use of theories, memes, and Internet culture to make radical content more relatable or acceptable to a wider audience is not uncommon on these message boards, often known as chan sites. According to 2020 research from the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), memes are “deployed to promote extremist narratives under the guise of pop-cultural aesthetics, humor, and irony, thus lowering the barrier for participation.”

The New York investigative report echoed this finding: “The Christchurch shooter’s written manifesto is littered with memes and sarcasm, mirroring the style of the right-wing extremist forums he frequented and ultimately catered to during the attack. ‘Shit posting’ in these forums involves packaging white supremacy, xenophobia, and racism in a medley of crude jokes, coded cultural references, and meaningless content. Through this format, users can disseminate more direct, explicitly bigoted, pseudo-factual appeals to violence while maintaining a veneer that the content is ‘just a joke’ and was never meant to be taken seriously. For example, in a ‘Q&A’ section, the Christchurch shooter wrote that the video game ‘Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.’ This wink to online gaming communities—many of which are hotbeds of right-wing radicalization—gives adherents the sense that they are in on the joke and cultivates solidarity with him.”

One of the CREST researchers, Florence Keen, told Security Management in 2021 that “aesthetics deployed within these memes are really important to that chan culture way of drawing people in. So, it might look to someone unversed in that community or in misogynistic, racist narratives like sort of a joke, and in that way, it would lower the barrier to entry to some of these more extremist mindsets.”

Lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic also increased radicalization risks.

“We’ve known for years that it can be all too easy for people to become radicalized without even leaving home,” wrote the authors of Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents and Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization. “The proliferation of extremist spaces and content online has created new and powerful avenues for radicalization, especially for young people.”

In addition, “livestreaming has become a tool of mass shooters to instantaneously publicize their crimes, further terrorizing the public and the communities targeted by the shooter,” the report found. The Buffalo gunman used a camera attached to a helmet to livestream the shooting.

Chan culture is known to simultaneously glorify, trivialize, and gamify violence, the CREST research found. Users and content on these sites challenge users to achieve “high scores” by committing acts of violence. Livestreamed video and the proliferation of shooters’ manifestos can make this challenge even more attractive to potential attackers. The Buffalo shooter meticulously outlined his methods for preparing for his attack in his manifesto and online logs, hoping to “encourage further attacks that will eventually start the war that will save the Western world” from Jewish people and Black people—a tone that the New York investigators deemed “explicitly accelerationist,” meaning that it leverages terroristic and violent tactics to achieve political goals.

This aligns with previous U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessments that found that among domestic violent extremists, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSE)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”

Between 2018 and 2019, WSEs were responsible for eight terror attacks in the United States, resulting in the deaths of 39 people—the most of any extremist group in the United States in that timeframe. The number of white nationalist groups in the United States grew 55 percent between 2017 and 2019, DHS reported.

Both James and New York Governor Kathy Hochul are calling for reforms at the state and federal levels to combat online extremism, Politico reported. They want state legislation to criminalize graphic images or videos created by the perpetrator of a homicide and to penalize individuals who share or repost those same images or videos.

They also called for reforms to Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act (CDA). Currently, “online platforms are generally spared liability for the content posted by their users, regardless of their moderation practices,” the report said. “We recommend that Congress reform the law to require an online platform to take reasonable steps to prevent unlawful violent criminal content (and solicitation and incitement thereof) from appearing on the platform in order for it to reap the benefits of Section 230.”