The suspect in Saturday’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, appears to be actively involved in online firearms, ammunition and tactical gear communities, according to social media posts. Platforms hosting the communities responded 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 prime suspect in the shooting. He appears to have live-streamed parts of the attack on online platform Twitch.
Twitch said it deleted the stream less than two minutes after the violence began on the show and “suspended” the user indefinitely.
A 180-page “manifesto” that senior law enforcement officials said they believe the suspect had written and posted online cited the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory and credited the anonymous online community 4chan with his radicalization.
The suspect wrote that he frequents the weapons section of the site, called “/k/”, and the “politically incorrect” section of the site, which frequently harbors racist and white supremacist rhetoric. Mass shooters have previously cited 4chan as a place they visited. Brenton Tarrant, the shooter of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attack, notably posted his written plans for the attack on 4chan.
The Buffalo shooting suspect appears to have been heavily influenced by Tarrant’s digital playbook and may have attempted to replicate it.
Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst specializing 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, put down others and promoting 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 live-streamed the attack frequently posted sub-reddits devoted to guns, tactical gear, ammunition, metal trading valuable and other topics. The last post was Saturday morning in a subreddit devoted to ammunition.
Several user-frequented subreddits responded to the community-level shooting. A precious metals trading community the user frequented temporarily shut down public access to the subreddit, writing that moderators wanted to prevent harassment from people who may have interacted with the suspect. A tactical gear subreddit where the user would also post 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 focused on guns and armor called “plate land”. In chat logs archived from the server by non-profit media organization Unicorn Riot, a user with the same username and avatar as the account that streamed the shoot on Twitch asked for advice on combat equipment in the “plate land” community. Images that purported to be screenshots from the same account posted on another Discord server showed the user doing what appeared to be a list of filming-related tasks. Discord did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Connor said shooters can use these firearms and tactical gear communities to plan their attacks. “It appears this person could have used these forums to learn how to best address this act of violent extremism and how to maximize the potential to cause as much injury and as much death as possible,” he said.
In the wake of the filming, the role of platforms like Twitch in moderating content has already become a topic of discussion. “Social media platforms that profit from their existence must be responsible for monitoring. They can somehow become accomplices, if not legally, but morally,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said Saturday, referring to the livestream.
Jared Holt, resident researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said shooters will often strategically choose which rigs to use in their attacks. “They will often still look for a more mainstream platform to try to release and then circulate manifestos about some of the more underlying places,” he said.
“Live streaming presents a unique content moderation challenge,” he said, as it requires live video monitoring and content detection.
Preventing the dissemination of the document is another difficult problem for the platforms. The manifesto associated with the Buffalo shooting was originally hosted on Google Drive before being removed by the tech giant.
Holt noted that moderating these types of services is a “kind of delicate balancing act.”
“I don’t know if I would be super excited about Google scanning everything I put on Google Drive,” he said.
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
As platforms like Twitch, Discord and Reddit remove content after something like a mass shooting, Holt said dangerous ideologies continue to fester on the platforms.
“In terms of the ideology that drove the violence in the first place, a lot of these platforms are much slower to moderate that,” Holt said. Despite the role of tech platforms in spreading 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 example , lawmakers passed a bill banning political censorship by tech platforms, opening the door to potential lawsuits.
“I hope this is kind of a moment of self-reflection for some of these platforms to really maybe try to figure out how the ideology that inspired the Buffalo tragedy exists on their platform and whether or not these platforms think that it’s appropriate for her to exist that way,” he said.