The Media Today

The Buffalo shooting and the tangled roots of hate

May 16, 2022
People gather outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Kat Massey was a visible figure in Buffalo, New York. A longtime civil rights advocate who was active in various local causes, she also contributed articles to the Criterion and the Challenger, two Black newspapers in the city, the latter of which was founded in 1963 to, in its own words, offer the African-American community “a real alternative to an otherwise negative and hostile White press.” Massey wrote for the Challenger about issues including education and drugs. She also wrote about gun policy. A year ago this month, she sent a letter to the Buffalo News (something she did frequently) decrying “gut-wrenching” gun violence in the city and urging federal action, including a clampdown that would stop out-of-state gun trafficking.

On Saturday, a white gunman clad in combat gear drove for several hours to a Tops supermarket in a predominantly Black Buffalo neighborhood and opened fire, killing ten people—all of them Black—and wounding three others. The victims included Roberta Drury, a thirty-two-year-old woman who had gone out to buy dinner supplies, and Aaron Salter Jr., a fifty-five-year-old retired local cop whose bravery had been hailed on several occasions by the News, and who had since taken a job as a security guard at Tops. Their number also included Massey. She was seventy-two. “We lost a voice yesterday,” Betty Jean Grant, a former county lawmaker who worked on activist causes with Massey, told the News. “We lost a powerful, powerful voice.”

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The mass shooting—America’s deadliest so far in 2022—entered not only the annals of gun violence that so concerned Massey, but also, it would seem, those of hate crime with deep roots on the internet. In 2019, different gunmen deposited virulently racist screeds online before killing fifty-one Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand; a congregant at a synagogue in Poway, California; and twenty-three people, many of them Hispanic, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, with the latter two shooters explicitly drawing inspiration from the Christchurch gunman. The suspect in the Buffalo shooting apparently left behind a screed, too, large portions of which appeared to have been copy-pasted from that of the Christchurch gunman; it also contained pages of racist memes, with the author claiming to have been radicalized on 4chan, an internet message board, in a period of “extreme boredom” early in the pandemic before falling down various other dark rabbit holes, including the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website. (At time of writing, authorities were still working to confirm the document’s authenticity.)

Like the Christchurch gunman and a shooter who killed two people after failing to storm a synagogue in Halle, Germany, also in 2019, the Buffalo gunman livestreamed his massacre on social media. (The Poway shooter pledged to livestream his attack, too, but didn’t.) The Buffalo gunman used a camera mounted on his helmet to broadcast on Twitch, a video-streaming service; moderators took the feed down quickly—within two minutes, they claimed—but the footage had already been lifted, linked elsewhere, and seeded across the wider social media landscape, teeing up a grimly familiar game of regulatory Whac-a-Mole. According to Kellen Browning and Ryan Mac, of the New York Times, some Facebook posts with links to the video stayed up for hours, with some users who flagged them claiming to have been told that they did not violate Facebook’s rules. Twitter, for its part, allowed the video to be directly uploaded to its platform before pledging to scrub any references to it.

In short, even Twitch’s apparently impressive takedown speed failed to stop footage of an internet-inspired atrocity from itself being viewed millions of times—a grimly repetitive cycle that churns on. “In 2019, I had an article out within hours of every 8chan shooting,” Robert Evans, a journalist who has worked with the open-source investigative website Bellingcat, wrote on Saturday, referring to another message board. “I will not be doing that with this shooting. Everything I wrote in 2019 is relevant to these shootings. nothing has changed. Nothing has been done.”

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If anything has changed since 2019, it perhaps has more to do with the extent to which dangerous ideas traded in dark corners of the internet have been mainstreamed by Republican politicians and in traditional right-wing media—a trend that many commentators noted over the weekend. We should be careful to avoid recency bias in such takes—a detailed Times analysis following the El Paso shooting already found a “striking degree of overlap” between that gunman’s screed and rhetoric on Fox News and other right-wing outlets—but the mainstreaming has clearly accelerated. The Buffalo suspect’s screed referenced both “critical race theory,” an all-purpose boogeyman promoted relentlessly in right-wing media of late, and the “great replacement” theory, a web of false claims all holding that elites are conspiring to replace the white population. This idea is often explicitly anti-immigrant. In the case of the Buffalo screed—as Kathleen Belew, an expert on the white-power movement, told The New Yorker—such rhetoric “is sort of being used as the frame for an act on African Americans.”

Last year, Tucker Carlson, Fox’s most-watched host, claimed on air that Democrats are intentionally importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the US electorate—his most explicit invocation of a concept he has otherwise alluded to hundreds of times, an extensive recent Times investigation found. As Nicholas Confessore, who led that investigation, and his colleague Karen Yourish wrote over the weekend, while there’s no indication that the Buffalo suspect watched Carlson’s show—and measuring the latter’s influence in spreading the replacement idea “may be impossible”—there are, again, “notable echoes” between Carlson’s words and a murderous screed. Ultimately, such rhetoric swims in an ecosystem that lacks clear dividing lines: mainstream right-wing figures can popularize versions of extreme online discourse while at the same time opening a rabbit hole back to those sources. A recent poll found that a third of Americans now believe in basic tenets of the replacement idea, and that such respondents were more likely to consume right-wing media. As CNN’s Brian Stelter put it yesterday, “we shouldn’t call it ‘fringe’ anymore.”

The replacement idea is a global threat—its recently popularized incarnation has roots in France, and has found increasingly mainstream expression in politics and media there, too—as is related racist violence; look no further than the Christchurch shooting. At the same time, the Buffalo shooting finds clear echo in America’s own distinctive history of organized racism. Both of these things are important to keep in mind as we debate how to counter the spread of extremist information and acts. As the journalist Wesley Lowery warned Stelter yesterday, “we can wake up tomorrow and Fox News can be shut down and all of the message boards can be shut down and these ideas would not disappear.” As The New Yorker’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor noted, the shooter “showed us what happens when we continue to hide from our history.”

There’s another distinctively American context to the Buffalo shooting: US gun laws. No little coverage over the weekend highlighted this dimension of the story, but it was, to my mind, somewhat overshadowed by everything else that was heinous about it, even though—as New York governor Kathy Hochul put it yesterday on CNN, “unfettered” access to both guns and online hate makes for “a lethal combination” that cannot be separated. Hochul’s words echoed those of politicians after the El Paso shooting, which was followed, just hours later, by a mass shooting that claimed nine lives in Dayton, Ohio. This time, again, a weekend in America didn’t stop at one atrocity. According to the Gun Violence Archive, yesterday alone saw four mass shootings, including at a church in Laguna Woods, California, where a shooter killed one person and injured five. These atrocities have certainly been overshadowed by Buffalo in the news cycle.

The press, as I’ve written too many times before, owes it to the victims of all shootings to continue to convene an urgent public debate about gun reform, and not let cynicism or a lack of political will impede it. The example of Kat Massey is instructive here. The letters page of the local paper can demand our attention, just as well as Fox and the fetid fever swamps of the internet.

Below, more on the Buffalo shooting:

  • “Decision point”: With executives at Fox set to pitch advertisers at the network’s annual upfronts event today, Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, writes that the Buffalo shooting is a “decision point” for potential buyers. Fox executives “have ignored any number of warning signs and protests from inside and outside the network that Carlson’s white nationalist rants were dangerous,” Gertz argues. “The only thing that could plausibly make them stop is if doing so stops being so profitable. Until that happens, Carlson knows they have his back.”
  • No moderation: Last week, an appeals court permitted the state of Texas to start enforcing a law, passed last year, that blocks large tech platforms from taking down political speech—a sop to right-wingers who believe that social media companies are biased against their posts. Over the weekend, various observers argued that Twitch’s move to take down the Buffalo shooter’s channel would likely have violated the new Texas law. “Buffalo is in New York, not Texas, so the law wouldn’t have applied,” Reason’s Robby Soave writes, but the law is “exactly the kind of thing that the new anti-tech consensus on the right would like to implement everywhere in order to fight back against alleged censorship of their ideas.”
  • A reminder: In 2019, J.M. Berger warned—in an article for The Atlantic that was published prior to the Christchurch, El Paso, and Poway shootings—that news organizations should not share shooters’ screeds with their readers. “Manifestos are rarely simple confessional documents,” Berger wrote at the time. “They are works of propaganda, just like isis beheading videos and al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Like those publications, journalists should report on manifestos, but they should mediate their propagandistic intent instead of blindly amplifying it.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.