The Media Today

With Poway synagogue shooting, online hate comes alive again

April 29, 2019

On Saturday—six months to the day after a gunman killed 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh—another gunman opened fire at another synagogue, Chabad of Poway, near San Diego, California. It was the last day of Passover. The shooter killed Lori Kaye, a 60-year-old woman, and injured three other people, including an eight-year-old child and Yisroel Goldstein, the synagogue’s rabbi. (According to eyewitnesses, Kaye threw herself in front of Goldstein, potentially saving his life.) In Washington, President Trump said the hate crime was “hard to believe.” In fact, given the present, heightened visibility of white supremacy and white-nationalist terrorism, the Poway shooting was sickeningly easy to believe. “The state of our union is horrified, again. Horrified,” Jake Tapper said, introducing his show, State of the Union, on CNN.

Even the details of these horrors are becoming repetitive. As with the Pittsburgh murders, in October, and the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, the specter of online radicalization again reared its head in Poway. NBC’s Ben Collins—who noted, on Twitter, that he was “tired of writing the same story over and over again”—and Andrew Blankstein report that the suspected Christchurch and Poway shooters appear to have posted “near identical” notes on 8chan’s /pol/ board, a forum crawling with neo-Nazis, prior to shooting Muslim and Jewish worshipers, respectively. In his note, the Poway shooter cited Pittsburgh and Christchurch as inspiration; he linked to the same document-dumping sites as the Christchurch shooter, and also to a Facebook page, where he promised to livestream his attack. (Unlike the Christchurch shooter, the Poway shooter appears not to have gone through with the livestream.)

ICYMI: His father installed printing presses. He dismantles them.

The suspected Poway shooter repeatedly asserted that 8chan had radicalized him. As The New York Times’s Charlie Warzel writes, the note was steeped in discourse common to the forum and to the Extremely Online far right more broadly. “It seems real-world murderous hate crimes have become a message board meme of sorts. And like any online meme, the creation cycle only seems to be accelerating, refining itself and, horrifyingly, increasing in frequency,” Warzel notes. “Its effects are morphing into the real world and spreading violence.” 8chan users commonly egg each other on to weaponize their hate offline. A response to the Poway post encouraged the shooter to “get a high score”—a disgusting, gamified reference to human lives.

White-nationalist terrorists are not lone wolves. Their murderous violence is deeply communal: perpetrated at the urging—and for the entertainment—of gawking audiences in dark corners of the web. For the press, fully understanding terrorism emanating from extremist communities, then contextualizing it for news consumers, is always a daunting challenge. Sites like 8chan double the difficulty because the “toxic in-jokes” they traffic in are intended, in part, to hoodwink and humiliate journalists. As Robert Evans, a writer at open-source investigative website Bellingcat, explains, “shitposting” is a strategy to mask the full, menacing extent of far-right extremism by trivializing it. “What should we take seriously?” Evans asks. “The Nazi stuff. Take the Nazi stuff seriously.” He continues: “No matter what else is discussed, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred of LGBT individuals, and a desire to commit murder under the swastika are constant through-lines.”

In all likelihood—and against all hopes to the contrary—we are going to have to cover attacks like Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and Poway again. In the meantime, we should all urgently educate ourselves about the online hate dens that are helping to spawn them. That doesn’t mean amplifying the hate—for example, by sharing murder “manifestos.” Nor does it mean mistaking the shitposting for its deeper causes; as Warzel writes, “The medium by which a shooter is radicalized is only one component of a long path to violence, and mass shootings and anti-Semitic violence have a long, dark legacy.” We need to explain what’s distinct and what’s linked about far-right hate and the online culture that channels it, all while keeping real-world victims front and center. It’s a tough ask. First, we need to understand what we’re dealing with.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Poway, hate, and anti-Semitism:

  • The local angle: The San Diego Union-Tribune has comprehensive coverage of the Poway shooting, including the details of the incident, reactions from the community, and testimony from survivors. You can find all its stories on this landing page.
  • Islamophobia: In his note, the Poway shooter also said that he tried to burn down a mosque in Escondido last month. Over the weekend, police said they were investigating that claim. Also in California, a man deliberately drove into a crowd of pedestrians last week because he believed they were Muslims, police say. Eight people were injured. As CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, “Police did not identify it as a hate crime until Friday, three days after the attack, so it received relatively scant news coverage.”
  • Anti-Semitism: Over the weekend, The New York Times admitted that a cartoon it published in its international print edition was “offensive” and an “error of judgment.” The cartoon depicted Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, as a guide dog with a Star of David collar; he is leading Trump, who is drawn wearing a skullcap. The drawing “could just have easily appeared in ISIS or neo-Nazi propaganda,” CNN’s Tapper said.
  • Christchurch: For The New Yorker, Kate Klonick goes inside the content-moderation team that dealt with the livestreamed Christchurch massacre for Facebook.

Other notable stories:

  • On Saturday night, Ron Chernow, the historian whose book inspired the musical Hamilton, addressed journalists at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He was booked after comedian Michelle Wolf’s scathing routine went down poorly with administration attendees (and some reporters) last year. “If losing the punch lines was meant as an enticement to Trump, the move fell short,” the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum writes—the president banned staff from going and instead held a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during which he repeated a lie about doctors “executing babies.”
  • With Joe Biden finally having declared his run for the White House, the Democratic field for 2020 is looking filled out. Going forward, Ben Smith, editor of BuzzFeed News, says media coverage of the candidates will shape the outcome to a lesser extent than in primaries past: “These new politics look less like old presidential campaigns than like social-media fandoms,” he writes. Meanwhile, after saturated 2016 coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan weighs how newsrooms might better vet maliciously stolen—yet newsworthy—information aimed at swaying American voters.
  • The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia and Robert Costa explore the “mind meld” between Trump and Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host, immigration hardliner, and “unofficial policy whisperer” who—some weeks—speaks to the president every day. “I think he respects what I’m doing, and I respect the job he does,” Trump told the Post. “He really gets the word out. There’s no question about it.”
  • The Correspondent, the buzzy, crowd-funded English-language arm of Dutch outlet De Correspondent, courted controversy earlier this year when it announced it would not be sustaining a newsroom in the US—as CJR’s Mathew Ingram reported, some donors said they felt misled. In mid-March, Zainab Shah, The Correspondent’s first US hire, quit. Last week, she broke her silence in an interview with Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen. “It really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. The Correspondent’s founders “were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?
  • On Friday, Politico Magazine released its annual media issue. Christopher Cadelago profiles Doug Mills, White House photographer for the Times. And Tim Alberta looks inside the shrinking newsroom of the Des Moines Register, the influential local paper whose coverage has traditionally shaped the Iowa caucuses. “Fourteen reporters at the Register are currently assigned to [20] Democratic candidates… but only three of them are practiced political journalists,” Alberta writes.
  • Earlier this year, Gannett rebuffed a takeover bid from Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-backed publisher notorious for slashing costs at its titles. Digital First, which already holds a 7.5-percent stake in Gannett, plotted to flood Gannett’s board instead. Late last week, however, it scaled back that play, withdrawing three of its six candidates to the eight-member panel. Meanwhile, Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator for Ohio, called on Digital First to drop its bid. “Your newspaper-killing business model is bad for newspaper workers and retirees, bad for communities… and bad for democracy,” he wrote.
  • And for CJR, I checked in with journalists in Slovakia, where Ján Kuciak, an investigative reporter, was murdered alongside his fiancée last year. The murders sparked the biggest protests since the fall of communism and helped catalyze the recent election of Zuzana Čaputová—a liberal, pro-press outsider—as the country’s president.

ICYMI: The visual power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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.