Culture

An Explainer On The Motives And Methods Of Recent Mass Shooters


UPROXX

In the past two weeks, three mass shootings have rocked the United States to its core. First, on July 28, a 19-year-old man shot and killed three people and injured 13 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. Then, on August 3, a 21-year-old man shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas. Finally, only hours later, a 24-year-old man shot and killed 10 people and injured 27 in Dayton, Ohio.

Depending on how you define the term, there have either been 255 mass shootings (any shooting in which four or more people are shot) or eight mass shootings (any shooting in a public place in which at least three people are killed) or 17 mass shootings (shootings in which four or more people, not counting the suspect, die by gunshot wounds) in 2019 alone. The definition itself seems almost superfluous by this point. What we know for certain is this: people in public places hear a vehicle backfire and run for their lives. They don’t feel safe at small-town food festivals, big-box grocers, places of worship, or apartment complexes. And it’s adding to our collective anxiety in a measurable way.

A constant plea for gun control legislation — background checks, semi-auto military-style rifle bans, enforcing our current laws — goes ignored by the Senate (or, at least, the Senate Majority Leader) every time this happens. And virtually all of these shootings are committed by men, and often white men who are radicalized in the darkest reaches of the internet and emboldened by some of the most visible people in the country. In fact, when President Donald Trump landed in El Paso on August 7 to address the shooting, demonstrators gathered to protest his presence, while partially blaming him for the violence.

“Let me say this clear and loud: Trump is responsible,” one protester told the crowd. Another protester told Buzzfeed News that Trump’s comments about immigrants “spreads flames of hatred.” Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris all condemned Trump’s rhetoric as part of the problem.

For his part, the President did draw a hard line in a nationally televised address, stating: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.”

Below, we unpack the mass shooting-white supremacy correlation.

What do mass shootings have to do with white supremacy?

While officials are still investigating the motives behind the Gilroy and Dayton shootings, El Paso’s shooter was clear about his intentions: he drove more than nine hours from Allen, Texas to El Paso, a border town whose population is roughly 83 percent Latinx, to go on his spree. Only minutes before he started shooting, he allegedly posted a manifesto to the internet forum 8Chan (favored by radicals and the far right for its lax censorship rules), explaining what he was about to do and why.

The shooter wrote, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

These word choices — invasion, replacement, patriotic defense — is the common parlance of white nationalism. While white nationalism (belief in a white-dominated ethno-state) and white supremacy (belief in the superiority of the white race) are two separate belief systems, they often go hand-in-hand. Couched in the El Paso manifesto was language that made it clear that for the shooter, white people are the superior race, and their existence is being threatened. In other words: white nationalism is a part of white supremacy for many right-wing extremists.

The manifesto overtly references the “great replacement” of white people in the U.S., a nod to Renaud Camus’s theory of impending white genocide. (This is also the theory behind chants of “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” at the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally.)

The belief that there’s a “Hispanic invasion” of the U.S. is directly connected to the idea that the U.S. is and should remain a white-dominated nation. It’s worth mentioning that this idea is, in fact, a-historical; Texas was part of Mexico up until the Mexican-American War’s end. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe forced Mexico to cede large swaths of the west, making Texas a relatively young part of the U.S. This is to say nothing of the fact that the U.S., as it currently stands, was only formed in the late 18th century; Indigenous groups of the Americas have been here for over 20,000 years, meaning the construct of America as a white-dominated nation (literally built upon the backs of African and Indigenous slaves) is relatively new.

Have any other shootings in the past year been connected to white supremacy?

According to The Nation’s Talia Levin, white supremacist ideology — specifically, the great replacement theory — has inspired at least four mass shootings this year alone, one of which was the massacre that took place at a Christchurch, New Zealand mosque, in which the gunman murdered 51 people. The other three are the recent El Paso shooting, the Poway Synagogue shooting in April, and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October.

Many of these shooters see themselves as connected through ideology. The first thing the El Paso shooter wrote was, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.” That manifesto began: “It’s the birth rates. It’s the birth rates. It’s the birth rates.” That is another reference to great replacement and white genocide (and to Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed eight people by detonating a bomb and 69 people by shooting up a summer camp in protest of Muslims and what he believed was their threat to white European society). Further, the man who committed the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue less than a year ago had an extensive history of posting antisemitic remarks on social media, writing about “invaders” and calling Jews and Muslims, among other things, “filthy.” Not long before he committed the massacre, he wrote, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I am going in.”

In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “2018 was a particularly active year for right-wing extremist murders: Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism.”

Why is this happening?

These shootings fit into a larger trend, in which “about 56 percent of the extremist murders committed in the United States over the past decade were carried out by people espousing white supremacist ideology such as the great replacement,” according to long-term research. The Anti Defamation League’s report on Murder and Extremism in 2018 shows that not only are politically-motivated murders on the rise, but they found that “[w]hite supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.”

That’s a jump from the previous year, which according to Politifact, saw a “17 percent increase in hate crimes in 2017 over the previous year, [wherein] more than half were motivated by biases based on race, ethnicity or ancestry.” Before that, researchers found that November 2016 — the month Trump was elected — was the worst month for hate crimes, with 758 reported incidences, since September 2002 (not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and shortly before former President George W. Bush’s announcement that we were going to invade Iraq).

Still, this doesn’t explain the why. The fact of the matter is that the demographics of the U.S. are changing — and quickly. The U.S. immigrant population is approaching an all-time high, and the U.S. population is projected to be majority nonwhite by 2050. Concurrently, we’re living in a post-global crash world, in which the 2008 global financial crash radically altered wealth distribution in the U.S. Not only are necessities like rent, food, and education getting more expensive while wages stagnate, you have news outlets like Fox News stoking fears about immigrants stealing jobs. In other words: as capitalism crumbles, powerful right-wing provocateurs blame immigrants and refugees, feminists — anyone who seems to threaten the status quo.

According to director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino Brian Levin, “Times of change, fear and conflict offer extremists and conspiracists a chance to present themselves as an alternative to increasingly distrusted traditional mainstream choices.” Researcher Joshua Inwood adds, “Throughout the development of the United States, whiteness has long stood as a bulwark against progressive and revolutionary change so much so that when the US racial state is in economic and political crisis, bourgeoisie capitalism appeals to the white middle and working classes to address that crisis.”

Translation: whiteness is used as a weapon to fight against change, just as it has always been. Consider the 3/5 Compromise and the Electoral College, which guaranteed that the “more than half a million slaves in the South” (at the time the Constitution was written) would each count for 3/5 of a person, so slave-owners could vote on behalf of their own interests — using Black bodies, “giving political power to the master class,” and all but guaranteeing the strength of white supremacy. Or Jim Crow laws, which started popping up in the late 19th century and early 20th century and codified post-slavery racism by stripping Black Americans of their rights. Some examples: literacy laws that prevented Black people from voting; segregation, which prevented Black people from getting equitable educations and functioned to remind them of their place below white people; and red-lining, which prevented Black people (and, frankly, other people of color and Jewish people) from buying property in certain neighborhoods, effectively locking them into cycles of poverty.

During this same era, the Ku Klux Klan, the post-Reconstruction white terrorist group that lynched Black people for sport, came to power. They burned crosses to send messages of terror to their targets and functioned to prevent Black Americans and those who would help them from enjoying their civil rights. Their primary targets were Black Americans, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, they also attacked “Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and, until recently, Catholics.”

These recent shootings exist in the same realm: terrorism. If you think that’s an overreach, note: As per the FBI, domestic terrorism is “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature. ”

In the words of the shooters themselves, not only is the goal to exterminate as many “enemies” as possible in one go, but it’s also to send a message to other “enemies” not to come here, not to try to change things. And, in a sense, it’s working: numerous countries and Amnesty International have issued warnings to citizens not to visit the U.S., two of them being Venezuela and Uruguay, Latinx countries.

Who is radicalizing these people and how?

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You cannot talk about the radicalization of white men without talking about internet forums like 4Chan, 8Chan, right-wing social media platform Gab — and even YouTube and Facebook, which have both had a hand in proliferating fake news since well before President Donald Trump took office.

A study by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, on radicalization and the internet found the following:

1. The internet creates more opportunities to become radicalized.
2. The internet acts as an “echo chamber”: a place where individuals find their ideas supported and echoed by other like-minded individuals.
3. The internet accelerates the process of radicalization.

Here’s how it works, according to study published in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of the Journal of Deradicalization. The internet allows constraint-free thoughts, thanks to the anonymity it grants, which in turn lead to people feeling free to test out more radical ideas. The study found that “through this more radical online behaviour, individuals may gain essential affirmation and confidence in their value for the movement.” Concurrently, the internet makes it easier to connect with people who share these extreme beliefs and share “crucial information connected to the chosen lifestyle, such as banned literature, music, clothes and manuals.” Facts don’t matter so much as materials that confirm pre-existing biases.

In other words: the internet makes it easier to seek out confirmation of one’s basest fears-turned-ideologies and join communities that will push radical thinkers’ logic further than if they were isolated from a community and didn’t have access to, say, white supremacist literature. Or at least had to seek it out without the comfort of anonymity.

Gab offers an interesting case study here. The social media platform is full of alt-right and other right-wing extremists and was created as a reaction to what its founder saw as “mass censorship” on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter. It’s also where the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter spent a lot of his time — and where he announced that he was “going in.” Since its creation, Gab “has become an epicenter of extremely anti-Semitic and anti-black content, and conspiracy theories.” But Gab also tends to be a place where already-radicalized individuals — who are kicked off of other social media for violating their terms of service — gather, essentially creating an echo chamber of like-minded voices.

In a recent reading list about white nationalism and white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and gun violence, Uproxx recommended Mike Wendling’s Alt Right: From 4Chan To The White House. Wendling’s book clarifies that “these radicals didn’t emerge from nowhere; they’ve been growing for years thanks to forums like 4chan, and they’re taking their hate speech offline and turning it into hate crimes and terrorism.”

4Chan is an imageboard forum, based on the Japanese forums 2Ch and Futaba Channel, where people post anonymously on different sub-forums about topics ranging from anime to politics. Its Politically Incorrect board, /pol/ “is the site’s attempt at a politics board but, like many spaces on 4chan, anonymity has bred a space for extremist and fringe ideas.” /pol/ is also where many right-wing “pranks” originated, such as the decision to pretend the “okay” sign meant “white power” in order to make left-wingers and journalist who wrung their hands over the “okay” sign look stupid. (That sign, in turn, became a legitimate “white power” sign with the added benefit of plausible deniability.)

There’s also, of course, its random board, /b/, whose influence is felt throughout the internet in the way we speak, what memes become popular, and, of course, political discourse. 4Chan users often band together to do things like teach Microsoft AI Tay how to be a white supremacist or game Google trends polls to make it seem like Democratic candidate for president Tulsi Gabbard is more popular than she actually is.

Dale Beran’s essay “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” — which later turned into his book It Came From Something Awful — outlines how exactly 4Chan trolls went from anonymous trolls doing it for the lulz to legitimate white supremacists. Per NPR’s review of Beran’s work, “Economic inequality has made us all feel impotent and searching for an identity, so we glom onto a reality imposed on us via screens. For some, that means you’re emotionally invested in how well a movie from the Disney corporation is doing at the box office. For others that means pretending to be mad about gender representation in video games for the lulz until you start being actually mad.”

That anger percolated and turned into action — everything from rallies like the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, which led to the murder of anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer, and a recent campaign called “It’s OK To Be White” which was picked up by mainstream news outlet Fox News.

8Chan is like 4Chan taken to a further extreme. Per Quora, “The initial population of the 8chan users came after the 4chan moderation team decided to get serious and ip-ban people for posting illegal or exceptionally disturbing content.”

Self-defined as one of the “darkest reaches of the internet,” 8Chan was founded in 2013 but didn’t take off until the Gamergate controversy began in 2014. 8Chan was ground-zero for organized campaigns to harass, dox, and threaten women journalists and game developers under the guise of ethics in journalism. Which means its origins really lie in trolling and misogyny. And with its lack of rules — it really only bans “copyright violations and child porn” according to Vox’s Recode — it has become a place to disseminate violently white supremacist beliefs in the form of memes and text posts without worrying about being identified or kicked off the platform.

Its /pol/ board in particular “has become a home of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right ideologies online. The tone of the conversation there is one of dark and disturbing humor where hateful rhetoric about Jewish people, Muslims, women, and other groups abounds.”

8Chan and De-Platforming

Three of the four white supremacist-fueled mass shootings began the same way: “with a racist manifesto and announcement on the anonymous message board 8chan, one of the Web’s most venomous refuges for extremist hate,” according to the Washington Post. Most recently, “One of the most active threads early Sunday [August 4] urged people to create memes and original content, or OC, that could make it easier to distribute and “celebrate the [El Paso gunman’s] heroic action.”

The Christchurch shooter posted his manifesto — which the El Paso shooter referenced — on 8Chan, and the Poway Synagogue shooter posted on 8Chan before he began, “I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless. It’s been an honor.” He also linked to his Facebook and his manifesto.

8Chan creator Frederick Brennan, who no longer owns or runs the site, called for the forum to be shut down after what he called “[a]nother 8Chan shooting.” In a lengthy interview with Wired, Brennan said, “If this is not the end, maybe there will be another shooting and that will be the end. I just hope that they give up and throw in the towel. It is time. The only people that are really going to suffer are mass shooters that wanted to post on 8chan because they knew people would archive their stuff. So they will have to find another way. Boohoo.”

Per Wired, “Cloudflare, the internet infrastructure company that provides content delivery services and protection against denial-of-service attacks across the internet, cut service with 8chan on Sunday, following the attack.” Further, several prominent researchers on right-wing extremism — including Gwen Snyder, a researcher who has been doxxed and threatened by the right-wing group, the Proud Boys — are leading a concerted effort to get 8Chan’s verified Twitter account banned. The movement, called #untwitter8chan, is an effort to deplatform 8Chan and cut off their ability to easily reach out to vulnerable people who might be receptive to the nastiest of their rhetoric.

Why this course of action? There is strong evidence to show that deplatforming works. That 8Chan has already been removed from Cloudfare is a start. Research shows that, though in the short-term, deplatforming leads people to Google the things that have just been removed from mainstream social media (for example, Alex Jones and Infowars saw a bump in Google searches after he was removed from YouTube, Spotify, and other platforms with large reaches), in the long-term, it works. Researchers told VICE, “the falloff [of followers] is pretty significant and they don’t gain the same amplification power they had prior to the moment they were taken off these bigger platforms.” One great example? Right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos quickly went from one of the most prominent alt-right figures, constantly talking on mainstream social media about how feminism is cancer (among other talking points) and making appearances on television, to losing a book deal, falling deeply into debt, and almost completely losing his audience. Removing him from platforms like Twitter shrank his reach, meaning he has been less able to do harm.

The Matter of Trump

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That said: to pretend that this is just an internet problem is disingenuous. The internet is the place where many people become radicalized, yes, but these ideas obviously living in the hearts of real people. People who have felt empowered by the brazen rhetoric of the President. Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Paris-based author who has written about Renaud Camus, the man behind the “great replacement” theory, told the New York Times, “What has changed immensely in America since 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, is the relentless demonization of nonwhite immigrants, economic migrants and asylum seekers from the highest levels of institutional authority.”

Trump used white supremacist imagery in his campaign and his administration has followed suit. During his 2015 campaign announcement, he started his speech by painting a doom-and-gloom picture of the U.S. being sucked dry by vampiric countries. Beaten by China. Beaten by Japan. Beaten by Mexico.

“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he announced. “Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Since then, he tweeted a photo of former opponent Hillary Clinton in front of a pile of money and a Star of David (trafficking in extremely anti-Semitic imagery), said “a lot of [Muslims]” hate the U.S. at one of the Republican primary debates, and unapologetically retweeted known white supremacists.

As president, he has implemented a Muslim ban; refused to out-and-out condemn the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville in 2017; called Haiti and several African nations — with majority Black populations — “shithole countries“; changed the U.S.’s asylum policy to reject any asylum seekers who had passed through a third country (trying to prevent Central Americans coming up through Mexico from applying for asylum); and recently told several members of the House of Representatives — all women of color — to “go back” to the “crime infested” places they came from.

His administration has paid for thousands of Facebook ads warning of an “invasion” of immigrants and refugees at the southern border. If that language sounds familiar, it’s because it is: it’s the same language used in the white supremacist “great replacement” ideology — and the same exact language the El Paso shooter used to explain why he was about to commit mass murder.

The El Paso shooter isn’t the only connection between Trump and rising white supremacist violence. Per Time, “most of the larger American cities saw a decline in hate crimes in the first half of 2018, only to have the trend reversed in the second half, as America experienced a conflictual midterm election with ‘immigration,’ ‘wall’ and ‘caravan’ as key buzzwords.” This also tracks with Trump’s Facebook ad-buys: per the New York Times, “Trump has spent an estimated $1.25 million on Facebook ads about immigration since late March.” Most of the invasion ads ran from January through late March, though several dozen ran in May. This tracks with not only the Poway Synagogue shooting but also the El Paso shooting. In other words: the Trump administration’s virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric is having a direct effect on white supremacists themselves, emboldening them to take violent action.

This is being further enabled by what the administration is ordering law enforcement not to do. According to The Guardian, “Earlier this year [the Department of Homeland Security] disbanded a group of intelligence analysts focused on domestic terror threats, after shutting down programs specifically directed at neo-Nazis and other far-right groups.” That comes despite the fact that all evidence points to a meteoric rise in far-right groups across the U.S. In fact, FBI Director Christopher Wray reported to the Senate in July testimony that the FBI had already made as many domestic terrorism arrests in 2019 as it had in all of 2018. He testified that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”

Tracking these movements would legitimize the fact that they’re dangerous and growing. And that legitimization, which would, in turn, lead to investigations into suspicious activity would threaten that growth and, by extension, white supremacist action.

Amplifying and Mainstreaming Racist Rhetoric

You can’t talk about mainstream white supremacy without talking about many of the talking heads on Fox News. Sean Hannity, who has the president’s ear and one of the most popular cable news shows on television, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, the hosts of Fox and Friends — they’ve all used right-wing talking points about immigration, refugees, feminism, Black Lives Matter, and other threats to the status quo. (They’re also speaking directly to older viewers — including Trump — who may not have or understand access to forums like 8Chan.)

In fact, according to Media Matters, far-right forums like 4Chan and 8Chan and other white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa believe that Tucker Carlson, who has approximately 3.2 million nightly viewers (the most viewers in all of cable news after Sean Hannity), has embraced many of their talking points. He even defended the “It’s OK To Be White” campaign, and he just recently — as in, this week — called white supremacy a hoax.

This has put Fox News at the center of mainstream radicalization, particularly of older Americans, and they work in concert with machines like the “darkest reaches of the internet” and even the President of the United States. And that is why we are here today, discussing shooters’ manifestos and “Hispanic invasions.”

***

Obviously, this is a vast, complex web. A mess of overt racism and dog-whistles; of emotionally-charged, off-the-cuff actions and cool-headed planning; of decades-long efforts to demonize some of the most vulnerable Americans in the country and the resultant murder sprees of killers who feel validated in their radical beliefs. It’s a massive enough of an issue — tangled and twisted but very real — to make anyone dizzy, or even want to shut down and try to push away.

But it’s also our shared reality. The reality we are all, as Americans, in together.

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