Far-right Extremism and Gun Violence: Reimagining Prevention
As the U.S. reels from another spate of mass shootings, experts and practitioners concerned with understanding and preventing harms related to extremist radicalization are renewing calls for a more robust system of prevention and support for those at risk.
In May, a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, left 10 people, all of whom were Black, dead. The suspect, in documents distributed online just before the event, claimed he was motivated by violent white supremacy. The incident underscored the challenges facing deradicalization and prevention experts and practitioners: Law enforcement officials were aware the suspect had made “generalized threats” in the past and referred him to a psychiatrist for evaluation. They did not follow up afterward, and whatever psychiatric intervention occurred was not enough to stop what came next.
The alleged shooter detailed plans for a mass shooting and promoted his extremist views on the popular chat app Discord, seemingly unabated. He used Twitch, a livestreaming app favored by gamers, to distribute footage of his attack to the world. And he did all of it, as he wrote in a March 30 Discord post, to inspire others to do the same.
The alleged perpetrator, an 18-year-old New York state resident, faces 25 criminal counts, including a domestic terrorism charge, in connection with the massacre. (He has pleaded not guilty.) But this violent attack is far from unique, as the accused perpetrator’s racist screed – a memeified, cut-and-paste job lifted from white supremacist terrorists of years past – makes clear. Certain factors in this case typify all white supremacist violence: the cracks within the system that made his alleged attack possible; the networks through which he has funneled his propaganda; a culture that prioritizes carceral solutions; and, above all, the already strained mechanisms for deradicalization and prevention.
Instead, the U.S. is stuck in a loop. No government agency is engaging in substantive prevention and intervention work – meaning the kinds of initiatives, educational or otherwise, that could stop radicalization before it begins or at its earliest signs of appearing. Those agencies that do provide funding for prevention and deradicalization often approach it from a framework that is reminiscent of the post-9/11 “war on terror,” emphasizing surveillance, curtailing civil liberties, and relying on punitive carceral solutions. The civil rights violations from these Bush-era policies continue to affect many communities, and the approach has been completely unable to curtail violent attacks from the antidemocratic far right.
Hatewatch spoke to experts and practitioners focused on right-wing extremism and radicalization both about how Buffalo highlighted the shortcomings in America’s prevention strategy and about the challenges in stemming the proliferation of white supremacist terrorists’ propaganda. Rather than portraying prevention as solely a national security tool, experts encouraged a holistic approach that not only accounts for the nuances of radicalization, but also works in the broader communities, both online and off, that extremists occupy.
Breaking the loop requires a ‘whole community approach’
For Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Brian Hughes of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), whose work focuses on youth radicalization, the Buffalo shooter’s case reflects how the U.S. prevention strategy falls short.
The U.S. government has, under the Biden administration, doubled the amount of money spent on prevention, with the Department of Homeland Security having earmarked over $20 million to address domestic extremism in 2022. (In contrast, German officials announced in spring 2020 that they intended to allocate over 1 billion euros over the course of 2021 to 2024 to combat right-wing extremism.) These programs, which often focus on crisis mitigation and bystander intervention training, do little to address how we stop tragedies like Buffalo before they start.
According to a May 18 New York Times report, law enforcement officials took the alleged perpetrator into custody a year prior to the attack. Officials investigated the suspect, then a minor, under state mental health law after he stated his intention during a class exercise to commit a murder-suicide after graduating from high school. Although he received a psychiatric evaluation in June 2021, his threat wasn’t deemed specific enough to take further action, and he fell back off investigators’ radars a few weeks later.
“I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That’s the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns,” the suspect wrote in a post to his private Discord channel on Jan. 30, in an apparent reference to New York’s “red flag” law – an extreme-risk protection order that allows officials to temporarily seize weapons or block their sale to potentially violent individuals.
“It was not a joke. I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do,” he added.
A spokesperson for Discord told Hatewatch in an email that their investigation into the suspect’s use of the platform was ongoing and added, “Safety is a vital priority for us and we will continue to invest in and deploy new resources to keep bad actors and content off Discord.”
For both Hughes and Miller-Idriss, the Buffalo incident highlights the need for a holistic approach to extremism, including, but not limited to, those disposed to violence. Such a stratagem means incorporating civic education; teaching tactics to build resilience to far-right propaganda; and fostering digital and media literacy. These interventions may also be focused. For example, there are evidence-based methods for inoculating adults and youth against manipulative rhetoric around events that prevention practitioners have seen as opportunistic for far-right recruiters and propagandists, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prevention, on that level, is for everyone. Not just peers, but people who can recognize the warning signs. Like, principals who know what to do, having therapists who know what to do in terms of protocols and actual therapeutic engagement,” Miller-Idriss, the director of PERIL and author of Hate in the Homeland, added.
Hughes, PERIL’s associate director, noted that, as with any societal struggle, there are always going to be “the people on the very end of the bell curve” who are “going to be a problem for society.” Still, building resilience in whole communities remains crucial.
“What’s really going to improve things for these communities, like the community in Buffalo that was targeted, is to try and reduce the probability of these actions happening,” Hughes said.
In this “whole community approach,” he continued, “it isn’t just the people who are going to go off and commit acts of mass murder who are the ones we’re thinking about it. It’s actually the whole pool of their peers.”
Spreading hate online
The online far right’s valorization and commemoration of violence through the dispersal of memes, propaganda and livestreams of attacks poses a unique challenge to those concerned about limiting the glorification of extremist violence.
The style and proliferation of the alleged attacker’s propaganda form a direct parallel to the 2019 terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white supremacist gunman livestreamed on Facebook the murder of 51 worshippers and the wounding of dozens more at two mosques. (Though the original Christchurch livestream received only 4,000 views, Facebook claimed in 2019 that it removed another 1.5 million videos from its platform alone in the 24 hours after the attack.) The suspect in the Buffalo attack explicitly cited the Christchurch murderer’s livestream as an inspiration and model. He also plagiarized heavily from the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, according to Hatewatch’s review of both documents.
“Everything that happened with Christchurch is happening very, very quickly. And as with Christchurch, they’ve never been able to successfully keep that footage off the internet,” Ashley Mattheis, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and whose work has explored gendered hate online, told Hatewatch in a Zoom interview.
In contrast to the Christchurch response, Twitch, the livestreaming platform popular with gamers on which the suspect broadcasted his attack, removed the video “less than two minutes” after the violence began, as a spokesperson for the company told The Verge. But as the digital investigations firm Memetica found, a diffuse network of message boards, fringe sites and mainstream social media hubs continued to circulate his content online. These included sites popular with right-wing extremists such as 4chan, Kiwi Farms, Gab and Telegram, as well as more mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. At least one video on the alternative streaming platform Streamable received upwards of 3 million views, according to a New York Times report.
The continued circulation of these types of content is worrisome on a few levels.
The dissemination of manifestos or other written work in particular aids in threading together terror attacks across time and space. J.M. Berger, the author of Extremism, told Hatewatch that one of the central trends in recent manifestos is a “detailed look at preparations.” Even in cases, such as Buffalo, where the killer left a document that was largely plagiarized, these texts nevertheless offer a “blueprint.”
“It’s hard to clearly prove that deglamorizing and otherwise slowing or stopping the spread of manifestos would prevent violence per se,” Berger told Hatewatch in an email. (Emphasis his own.) But, he continued, “They definitely inspire violent people to imitate the form of an attack and seek to replicate the impact of earlier horrific attack, particularly with respect to target selection and a decision to commit mass murder rather than lower-level acts of violence.”
In a similar vein, videos of livestreamed attacks present extremists with an opportunity both to connect to grotesque acts of violence, as well as to memorialize mass murderers’ efforts. This is, in part, a factor of how these videos are recorded. Since Christchurch, killers have preferred a point-of-view shot (or first-person shot). This stylistic choice encourages supporters to engage with the attacks, Becca Lewis, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University whose work focuses on online political communities, told Hatewatch.
“Viewers literally watch the massacre from the point of view of the shooter, which allows them to both identify directly with the gunman and to imagine what it would be like to do the same,” Lewis explained in an email.
Transforming these livestreams into other forms of digital ephemera provides a venue for supporters of terroristic violence to engage further with these actions.
In some cases, extremists may go to great lengths to recreate terroristic content, whether through memes or other contexts. Mattheis cited an instance she discovered through her research where a supporter of the Christchurch killer recreated his attack on Roblox, a customizable online gaming platform popular with children and teens. Some, Mattheis told Hatewatch, are “as young as four or five years old.”
“That’s not a meme anymore. That’s really deeply, intrinsically motivated engagement with that violence,” Mattheis told Hatewatch. In the end, she added, “the actual impact of creating those memes has that sort of more deeply engrained motivational factor because people are now co-creators of a new part of the violence.”
In the aftermath of the Buffalo attack, some lawmakers revived ongoing calls for stronger legislation addressing domestic terrorism. Among them include calls to pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, a bill that would build out domestic terrorism offices within several federal agencies and encourage regular reporting on the topic. Though the House voted to pass the bill on May 18, Republican lawmakers in the Senate blocked the bill’s passage less than a week later.
But Miller-Idriss and others encouraged using the increased attention on right-wing, racist violence and terrorism as an opportunity to reimagine preventative work writ large.
“[Americans] haven’t been able to define prevention in a way that is different from prevention of violence in a crisis,” Miller-Idriss told Hatewatch. Ultimately, she added, “We cannot surveil or ban or arrest our way out of this.”
“The more we add surveillance and banning and arresting as our primary strategy for dealing with [extremism], the more we militarize and securitize our own societies. … It’s a climate of fear and anxiety that I don’t think is any better. It doesn’t actually make us safer,” Miller-Idriss continued.
One benefit of separating from this crisis-driven approach is that it allows prevention practitioners to detach from a security-driven framework. This “upstream preventative approach,” as one 2018 study referred to it, focuses on altering environments in which extremism takes root. It embraces social and educational tactics, such as those put forth by Miller-Idriss and Hughes, that seek to strengthen communities and alter the root causes of radicalization. Because such an approach involves looking at the broader structures and systems motivating extremists, it can also provide a more in-depth picture of which communities are targeted for recruitment. This can, in turn, provide practitioners with fresh ideas regarding what proactive preventative measures to take.
Furthermore, such an “upstream” approach allows for interventions to account for the nuances and complexities of what may draw individuals to violence. It also provides an opening for meaningful intervention in cases where someone is enmeshed in extremist communities whose motive is less readily apparent, such as the mass shooter who allegedly murdered seven people in the predominantly Jewish community of Highland Park, Illinois.
Overall, extremists will tell the story of their own radicalization that they want others to hear. The suspect in the Buffalo shooting credited a network of websites, including /pol/ (short for “politically incorrect”), a part of the image board 4chan that’s strongly associated with far-right internet culture; World Truth Videos, a self-described “free speech” network popular with some extremists; Daily Archives, a blog aggregator that shares material from white power groups like the National Alliance, as well as Holocaust deniers; and the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi blog founded by Andrew Anglin that has featured a graphic purportedly tracking white demographic decline on its homepage for years. But these narratives, particularly ones that portray radicalization as a phenomenon that occurs solely or primarily online, paint an incomplete picture.
On a platform level, these efforts include taking steps beyond merely deplatforming terroristic content. (Here, “deplatforming” refers to the actions that tech companies can take to prevent an individual or group from using their products.) Linda Schlegel, an associate research fellow at Modus – Center for Applied Research on Deradicalization in Berlin, told Hatewatch that platforms, including those involved in the Buffalo attack, need to incorporate both “reactive measures” (e.g., removing violent livestreams) and “proactive actions” (e.g., better training for moderators on identifying and reacting to different types of extremist content).
In the end, as Mattheis told Hatewatch, experts and practitioners ought to engage in “reflexively examining some of our own thinking” about extremism to foster resiliency, identify the needs of each community and determine how to handle those individuals who may be closer to committing violence.
“We need to understand that grievance can be mobilized in people from any background. People can feel like they don’t belong, no matter where they came from, or how well they’re loved,” she noted.
Editor’s note: The SPLC's Intelligence Project, which produces Hatewatch, also partners with PERIL to develop resources that equip parents, caregivers, educators and other trusted adults with the tools to prevent the spread of harmful ideologies and narratives. Hannah Gais, who reported this story, is not directly involved in the PERIL partnership. If you are interested in the Parents' and Caregivers' Guide SPLC produced with PERIL, you can find it here.