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When the ‘Lone’ Gunman Is a Group Project

The alleged Buffalo shooter had plenty of encouragement from his favorite online message boards

The 18-year-old arrested after a deadly mass shooting in Buffalo, New York this weekend largely plagiarized his white supremacist manifesto from the man who murdered dozens at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019. This text should refute any claim that his alleged crimes are unique — they belong to a global pattern of racist, violent hatred.

Yet the online communities that produce, discuss and often celebrate that sort of material persist in a show of innocence whenever it costs lives. Their slurs are “ironic.” Their stated interest in murdering specific groups of people — and wiping out entire cultures — is just a kind of LARP, or roleplay. In a 4chan thread where users discussed the Buffalo suspect’s writings, one critic sneered, “way too serious. did nobody tell him everything on this site is artistic fiction or what? what a faggot.” The next day, another anon on the /pol/ board praised him for a “job well done.”

In a Discord chat server that he evidently used as a journal, the disaffected teen recalled “bad experiences” with Black people at school, but noted that they did not make him “racist” against them. “I only really turned racist when 4chan started giving me facts that they were intellectually and emotionally inferior,” he wrote. “This behavior is simply due to the lack of development in their brains compared to a white person. Then I saw the crime statistics, and the rape of our women, and how the average black takes 700000 dollars from government support, and how they were able to have unlimited kids without any consequences, since they are dependent on such support.”

This fed into concerns of “low birth rates” among whites, and admiration for the Christchurch shooter, who addressed the topic in his manifesto, posted to 8chan (now 8kun). At one point, the terrorist’s 4chan fans actively tried to correspond with him in prison.

Much of what is said on 4chan and related sites is solely intended to shock, and few threats are made in earnest. But this hostile atmosphere, and the premium on edginess, causes a cycle of one-upmanship that eventually feels more like a game of chicken. When everyone anonymously poses as a potential agent of terror, who will finally choose to act? Who, galvanized by all the incendiary bullshit, will bring the fantasy to life? The atrocity that occurred in Buffalo was recorded and streamed for this audience — the one that conjured the idea. At every stage, it was a participatory phenomenon. Without the group of alienated insiders egging each other on, heightening the stakes and posting tactical advice, the victims might still be alive today.

The day before he killed eight people and himself on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon in 2015, a shooter vaguely alluded to his plan on 4chan. The post drew insults, questions and undeniable encouragement. Nobody could have been sure the anon was serious — which, along with the lack of identifying detail on 4chan posts, is what gave others license to wish him success. Even if they had believed him, they could’ve justified this response to themselves. It’s just irony. It’s just a LARP. It’s just provocation for its own sake. Don’t you know that’s how this message board works?

True enough, in a way. But only so many people can die before you have to admit that for some, there is no joke — just anger. A fear that you help to nurture and direct. The willingness to realize any evil you’ve put into words.