Analyzing a terrorist's social media manifesto: the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter's posts on Gab
Late Saturday night, federal prosecutors filed 29 counts of crimes of violence and firearms offenses against Robert G. Bowers, 46, for killing 11 and wounding six — including several police officers.
Bowers stormed a Pittsburgh area synagogue with semi-automatic weapons shouting “All Jews must die.” It was the single deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.
Officers said Bowers, after being apprehended, expressed “that he wanted all Jews to die" and that "[Jews] were committing genocide to his people,” according to the criminal complaint.
Bowers was soon identified online as having an account on the Gab social media network. Launched in the late summer of 2016, Gab was developed specifically as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook where users could freely traffic in the basest kinds of hate speech. Gab was adopted quickly by followers of the “alt-right” — a rebranding of traditional white nationalism by a new generation of believers that emerged online around 2014 and came to prominence by attaching itself to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
While Bowers’ Gab account was deactivated by the company, a screen capture of it suggests he was extremely active on the network. In the 19 days before Bowers carried out his act of mass murder, he posted or reposted memes and comments at least 68 times. He was clearly obsessed with Jews. In the small window into his account currently available, it’s evident he engaged with numerous antisemitic conspiracy theories that have long been in circulation among neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
A review of his account also shows Bowers participated in a wider range of fixations and grievances shared across the broader far-right, including a call to arms against “antifa” and a conspiratorial focus on the caravan of Central Americans fleeing violence.
In fact, much of Bowers’ online profile resembles those of countless other extremist users. Not just on Gab, but on other social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Discord and YouTube where, it should also be noted, avenues to white supremacist radicalization remain largely wide open. As with other alt-right killers, it’s likely that Bowers was radicalized entirely online.
This post will examine key reinforcing themes in Bowers’ postings — including so-called “white genocide,” nativism and a variant on “globalism” — and discuss its significance to the organized white supremacist movement generally and its possible influence on Bowers’ path to mass murder.
In three short sentences, Bowers revealed volumes about his hateful worldview and his motivation to kill. On Saturday morning before Bowers began his attack, he posted to Gab:
Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS is an American agency that services refugee populations around the world. Bowers blames Jews for enabling violent “invaders” to enter the United States. His reference to “optics” — meaning how best to market the white nationalist message to gain recruits and ultimately political power — reflects a familiarity with the current debate within the movement, which is accessible to anyone on Gab. “The optics debate” was a defining argument within alt-right circles, both online and off, as leaders and groups cracked under the pressure of public scrutiny and legal trouble following the deadly Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. Bowers also echoes racist mass murderer Dylann Roof who lamented that there was “no one doing anything but talking on the internet.” Bowers, too, expressed his impatience with all the talk.
But Bowers targeted Tree of Life because of a deeper conspiratorial worldview that cast Jews as the most urgent threat to the white race. In his last Gab post and several others, as well as in his statements to authorities after being apprehended, it’s clear Bowers adheres to the antisemitic conspiracy called “white genocide.”
White genocide holds that forces — principally Jewish, often coded as “globalist” — are pursuing policies seeking to destroy the “white race” in their “traditional homelands” like Europe and the United States through the deliberate importation of non-white people. This is what the torch-bearing white supremacists who marched on the campus of the University of Virginia meant when they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
White genocide includes immigration policy but also extends into the cultural realm. Adherents of the conspiracy view depictions of interracial relationships or positive representations of minority groups in media not only as lies but propaganda to convince viewers to acquiesce to “globalist” forces and become willing agents of their own demise. This cultural aspect of “white genocide” is buttressed by older antisemitic conspiracy theories that claim Jews control the mass media and Hollywood.
The terminology of “white genocide,” first popularized by David Lane, author of the infamous 14 words, was adopted by the American white supremacist movement over the last 30 years. But the concept behind it stretches back to the early 20th century when racial fearmongering escalated around a wave of immigration from southern European countries (this is perhaps best represented in Madison Grant’s 1916 racist tract The Passing of the Great Race). Bob Whitaker, the late segregationist who ran for vice president on the white nationalist American Freedom Party ticket, authored a 221-word “mantra” that served as a popular vehicle for the white genocide message. Bowers actually cited Whitaker in another post. He wrote, “Daily reminder: Diversity means chasing down the last white person.”
More important, white genocide is a quintessential example of “accusation in a mirror” style rhetoric that can lead directly to violence. As summarized by the Dangerous Speech Project, accusation in a mirror asserts “that the audience [or in-group, e.g. white nationalists] faces serious and often mortal threats from the target group [or out-group e.g. Jews] - in other words, reversing reality by suggesting that the victims of a genocide will instead commit it.”
Accusation in a mirror makes violence seem necessary by convincing people that they face a mortal threat, which they can fend off only with violence. This is a very powerful rhetorical move since it is the collective analogue of the one ironclad defense to murder: self-defense.
Within the past 10 years, with the rise of social media platforms and the opportunistic exploitation of several refugee crises in Europe and at the southern border of the U.S., organized white supremacists from around the world have made “white genocide” their central message. Hate groups like Daily Stormer and Identity Evropa embrace the concept with zeal.
For Bowers too, the message was received.
South African farmers
Recently, white supremacists have succeeded in smuggling a “soft version” of the white genocide conspiracy into mainstream conversation.
One post Bowers shared in the last month depicted a white South African farmer bloodied on a hospital bed. He had allegedly been attacked by black South Africans. White supremacist propagandists have long sensationalized these incidents to claim that a concerted attack on whites is occurring in the country. They argue a similar fate awaits other countries who cede or dilute white rule. This narrative notably influenced Roof, who sported flag patches of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on his jacket.
Jared Taylor of the white nationalist hate group American Renaissance has effectively weaponized the South African story. He describes its propaganda value, “We think of whites in South Africa as a canary in the coal mine.” Taylor said, “[What’s happening in South Africa anticipates] the future Africanisation of the planet.”
On the central issue of racist murders, the evidence says otherwise. Farm murders, which just hit a 20-year low, are a blip in the country’s high murder rate, where the vast majority of murder victims are black. But in late August, President Donald Trump tweeted to his 50 million followers that he would be ordering the U.S. State Department to investigate the “large scale killing of farmers.”
Many messengers shepherded this racist narrative into wider circulation, including successful and still active alt-right YouTube personalities like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern — key nodes in an “alternative influence network.” Earlier this year, Republican officials including Senator Ted Cruz and National Security Adviser John Bolton provided an audience to a delegation from a far-right Afrikaner group. Racist commentator Ann Coulter tweeted in June “The only real refugees: White South African farmers facing genocide.”
But it was a segment on South African farmers by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has dedicated his broadcast to themes of white racial resentment, that inspired the president to tweet. Trump's comments provided the largest possible amplification to this white supremacist narrative.
When and where Bowers picked up the thread is not immediately clear, but such is the diffuse, crowdsourced nature of social media propaganda campaigns — their vastness allows even the most prominent messenger to escape accountability.
Bowers’ posts also reveal a preoccupation with violent “invaders” who he believes have been imported by Jewish forces into the U.S. only to kill “our people,” i.e. whites.
It is common across the far right to hype crime and violence committed by immigrants, regardless of evidence, in order to dehumanize them. Setting aside the antisemitic element, this paranoia and fearmongering extends deep into the mainstream, especially under Trump. Bowers did not have to look far for reassurance that his fears of a violent invasion were warranted.
The SPLC-designated anti-immigrant hate group The Remembrance Project is a central example. Founded in 2009 by professional conservative activists, the group’s stated mission is, “Educating and raising awareness about the epidemic of killing of Americans by illegal aliens – individuals who should not have been in the U.S. in the first place.”
Founder Maria Espinoza — who has referred to “illegal invaders” — manipulates data and outright lies about this false “epidemic.” She once claimed a sensational statistic that “25 Americans or legal residents die each day at the hands of illegal aliens.” That statement is false.
This rhetoric of “violent invaders” is yet another example of dangerous rhetoric that can lead to violence, which it has. In 2009, members of the nativist extremist group Minutemen Civil Defence Corps (MCDC) invaded the home of an immigrant family and murdered a man and his 9-year-old daughter. In 2014, as a wave of children fleeing violence in their home countries sought asylum in the U.S., nativist extremists and anti-immigrant groups went into overdrive. Some organized armed protests at the border and even outside detention facilities that housed children.
Bowers shared a recent post from user John Rivers that included a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime chart showing murder rates for Honduras and El Salvador and called the caravan of asylum seekers “illiterate brutal murderers.” Thus, in the hands of white supremacists, impoverished and desperate victims of violence who are seeking asylum are transformed into violent criminals participating in an invasion of the U.S. This transformation has been amplified by anti-immigrant organizations, mainstream conservative commentators and the President himself, all of whom ignore the root causes of drug-related gang violence in some countries of Central America.
The Remembrance Project occupies a crucial space between American white nationalism, the more established anti-immigrant movement and the Trump administration. Espinoza appeared at several writers’ workshops of the white nationalist hate group The Social Contract Press and has appeared on the cover of the group’s journal alongside white nationalist editor Wayne Lutton (Lutton was on the editorial advisory board of the newspaper of the Council of Conservative Citizens, one of the groups that inspired Dylann Roof). In a revealing incident in 2014, Espinoza linked to an article from the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer headlined “Family Furious as Illegal Alien Let Out of Jail to Kill White People” in a blog post for the Remembrance Project.
Espinoza is also the beneficiary of several grants provided by groups within an anti-immigrant constellation of organizations created by white nationalist John Tanton. These groups include the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), both of which have published numerous studies hyping the criminality of immigrants that have been debunked by other researchers.
FAIR, CIS and The Remembrance Project have powerful allies in the administration with attorney general Jeff Sessions and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller. Miller, who has several connections to the white nationalist movement, is the main driving force behind the family separation policy at the border.
But the most powerful amplification of dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants has come from Trump himself, in too many examples to recount. Trump attended a Remembrance Project event during his campaign and hosted Espinoza at the White House to celebrate an executive order that would punish sanctuary cities. Espinoza recently petitioned the president to officially proclaim the first Sunday in November as the "National Day of Remembrance for Americans Killed by Illegal Aliens."
In another post, Bowers writes “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist.” Bowers also made antisemitic remarks about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and shared a meme that depicts Trump taking orders from an Orthodox Jew.
Bowers stated that he did not vote for Trump and does not support the president, apparently because Trump fails to publicly acknowledge the real threat posed by Jews. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k--- infestation,” Bowers wrote.
Bowers appears to accept the globalist-nationalist frame, two concepts that stormed into national circulation with the 2016 presidential campaign. The Trump campaign railed against “globalists” — a topic or “rolling narrative” prioritized by campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon when he helmed the far-right Breitbart News, which he described as “the platform for the alt-right.” Bannon’s Breitbart News played an essential role in mainstreaming the alt-right.
Historically, the term “globalist” was similar to “international banker” and was used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis to reference a conspiratorial Jewish cabal that controlled global finance and thus the world. That idea is derived from a notorious antisemitic forgery called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Bowers shared a variant of this in another meme depicting a cow, representing Americans, presented with two doors labeled “left” and “right.” Both lead to the same destination, an opening labeled “ZOG,” or Zionist Occupied Government. The meaning of the meme is that Americans are offered an illusion of choice in elections. The government is controlled by Jews.
The image was captioned “(((democracy)))” using the parentheses “echo” meme used to denote Jewish names, ideas and institutions, which was popularized in 2016 by the white nationalist hate group The Right Stuff. In a single meme, we can see how generations of racists contribute to a canon of antisemitism. Bowers was a prolific consumer of these antisemitic memes.
While Bowers clearly saw Trump as controlled by Jews, there is evidence that the Trump campaign helped break down a firewall that previously separated antisemitic themes from the mainstream. In one incident, Trump tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton with a Star of David shape next to her that read “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” That earned praised from infamous neo-Nazi David Duke, who commented, “Nice to see Mr. Trump slipping some 'Red Pills' to the American people!” In another campaign event, Trump accused Clinton of meeting "in secret with international banks, to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global interest powers, her special interest friends, and her donors."
In the final advertisement of his campaign on the eve of the election, three prominent Jews including Hungarian financier George Soros, former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, and chairman of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, were all depicted as shadowy “global special interests” who “control the levers of power in Washington.”
While the campaign stridently denied any antisemitic meaning to these and several other incidents, as did Breitbart News, what was heard by antisemites was another thing altogether. At Breitbart News for example, where the globalist frame was a regular feature in its coverage, antisemitic sentiment among its readership became more pronounced up and through the election. In Breitbart’s comments, terms like “Jewish” evolved into epithets.
More recently, a wide variety of conservative outlets and elected officials have joined the general fearmongering around the caravan with the conspiracy that George Soros is behind it. That Jewish influence was behind the “invasion” was something Bowers highlighted in at least two posts, including one that showed migrants loading into a truck that had a star on it that resembled the Star of David.
The attack yesterday bears many resemblances to other recent domestic terrorist attacks, including those which were clearly influenced by the rebrand of white supremacist ideas under the banner of the “alt-right.” These are for the most part “lone wolves,” in the sense that they are not part of any formal organization with a command structure. Nevertheless, they operate in a community built around shared ideas — influenced by contemporary, mainstream debates — and circulated almost entirely online.
Several similarities between Dylann Roof and Bowers have already been mentioned. Both men felt compelled to act in part because they were tired of seeing their ideological fellow travelers only active on the internet. They also shared similar ideological waypoints around white genocide —"accusation in the mirror”-style rhetoric that helped rationalize their decision to murder. Both targeted specific communities they saw as threatening based on conclusions derived from a steady, online consumption of racist propaganda, and both sought out their victims in houses of worship. Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six congregants at the Quebec City mosque in 2017, left a similar online trail of radicalization.
Other racist mass killers that come to mind include Wade Michael Page, who killed six and wounded four (including a responding officer) at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, and Anders Breivik who in 2011 killed 77 and injured over 300 in Norway. In a manifesto that reflected a deep immersion in the writing of the American far-right, Breivik assailed “Cultural Marxism” — another antisemitic conspiracy theory that has penetrated the mainstream in recent years — and feared the “Islamification of Europe,” a variant of the white genocide theme. Breivik saw himself as a heroic figure saving his culture and race. Like Bowers, he targeted internal enemies he believed were enabling its destruction.
Earlier this week, in a clear echo of Roof, Gregory Bush attempted but failed to enter a black church before selecting a grocery store as his target just last week in Kentucky. He killed two African Americans. The murders are still under investigation.
Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent who helped found the agency’s Behavioral Analysis Program, has described the psychological profile of terrorists as “wound collectors.” In an interview with the SPLC he said:
The one thing we know is that the psychology has always been the same. By that I mean you have individuals who are collecting wounds, they’re looking for social ills, or things that have gone wrong, and they are nourishing these things that they’re ideating, that they’re thinking about. The solution for them is violence. The psychology is always the same…They will go back in history and tell you about the Crusades. That’s a thousand years ago, and they’ll tell you about it. They’re collecting these injustices and they just hang on to them, and they feed them and nourish them.
Given the reckless rhetoric coming from the president on down, rhetoric enabled by digital echo chambers and unchecked social media platforms, nourishment for killers like Robert Bowers is all too easy to find.
Additional analysis contributed by members of the Hatewatch staff.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke