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Buffalo shooting suspect appeared to be involved in online gun groups

UniqueThis 17 May 15

The suspect in Saturday’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, appeared to be actively involved in online communities devoted to guns, ammunition and tactical gear, according to social media posts. The platforms hosting the communities reacted quickly after the shooting, which killed 10 people and appears to have been racially motivated, banning accounts that appeared to belong to the suspect. 

Payton Gendron, 18, was arrested Saturday as the main suspect in the shooting. He appears to have livestreamed parts of the attack on the online platform Twitch.

Twitch said that it removed the stream less than two minutes after the violence in the broadcast began and that it “indefinitely suspended” the user.

A 180-page “manifesto” that senior law enforcement officials said they believe the suspect wrote and posted online cited the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory and credited the anonymous online 4chan community for his radicalization. 

The suspect wrote that he frequented the weapons section of the site, called “/k/,” and the site’s “politically incorrect” section, which is a frequent home to racist and white supremacist rhetoric. Mass shooters have previously cited 4chan as a place they visited. Brenton Tarrant, the shooter in the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, included posting his written plans for the attack to 4chan.

The Buffalo shooting suspect appears to have been heavily influenced by Tarrant’s digital playbook and may have tried to replicate it.

Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst who specializes in the study of online extremism, said 4chan’s permissive rules have made it a gathering space for extremists: “4chan is a safe space to hate, denigrate others and promote white supremacist ideologies.”

The suspect also appears to have been involved in other online communities on more mainstream platforms.

On Reddit, a now-suspended user with the same username as the Twitch account that livestreamed the attack frequently posted to subreddits devoted to guns, tactical gear, ammunition, precious metal trading and other topics. The last post was Saturday morning in a subreddit devoted to ammunition. 

Several subreddits frequented by the user responded to the shooting on a community level. A community devoted to precious metal trading the user frequented temporarily shut down public access to the subreddit, writing that the moderators wanted to prevent harassment of people who may have interacted with the suspect. A tactical gear subreddit where the user would post also restricted access without issuing a statement. Reddit did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In the online document, the suspect also referred to the Discord chat platform and a community on it centered on guns and armor called “plate land.” In chat logs archived from the server by the nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot, a user with the same username and avatar as the account that streamed the shooting on Twitch sought advice about combat gear in the “plate land” community. Images that were said to be screenshots of the same account posting in a different Discord server showed the user making what appeared to be a to-do list related to the shooting. Discord did not respond to a request for comment. 

O’Connor said shooters can use such communities devoted to guns and tactical gear to plan their attacks. “It does seem as though this person could have used these forums to learn how to best approach this act of violent extremism and how to maximize the potential to cause as many injuries and as much death as possible,” he said.

In the wake of the shooting, the role of platforms like Twitch in moderating content has already become a subject of discussion. “The social media platforms that profit from their existence need to be responsible for monitoring. They can in a sense become an accomplice, if not legally, but morally,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Saturday, referring to the livestream.

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said shooters will often strategically choose platforms to use in their attacks. “They often will still seek out a more mainstream platform to try to broadcast and then circulate manifestos on some of the more underbelly-type places,” he said.

“Livestreaming provides a unique challenge on the content moderation-front,” he said, because it requires live video monitoring and content detection. 

Preventing the spread of the document is another difficult issue for platforms. The manifesto associated with the Buffalo shooting was originally hosted on a Google Drive before it was removed by the tech giant.

Holt noted that moderation of these types of services is a “kind of a delicate balance.”

“I don’t know if I would be super excited with the idea of Google scanning everything I put on Google Drive,” he said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

While platforms like Twitch, Discord and Reddit remove content after something like a mass shooting, Holt said the dangerous ideologies continue to fester on the platforms. 

“When it comes to the ideology that motivated the violence to begin with, a lot of these platforms are a lot slower to moderate against that," Holt said. Despite the role of tech platforms in the spread of extremist ideology, many politicians and tech leaders are now challenging the power of social media companies to remove content they disagree with. In Texas, for instance, legislators passed a bill that forbids political censorship by tech platforms, opening the door for potential lawsuits.

“I would hope this is kind of a moment of self-reflection for some of those platforms to really maybe try to understand how the ideology that inspired the tragedy in Buffalo exists on their platform and whether or not those platforms think it’s appropriate for it to exist that way,” he said.

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