How do you begin writing a piece that you’ve already written so many times before? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself following the news of the shooting in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday (14 May). Initially, I began to write about Elliot Rodger, the man who took the term “incel” mainstream after murdering six people in California after uploading a lengthy personal manifesto online. I thought about starting with an explanation of extremist websites, about how someone becomes radicalised, and the power of Big Tech, and how these two things have been largely ignored. Then I figured I would just be straightforward, beginning with a description of the racially motivated violence that occurred in New York. But I feel stuck because, over the last four years, I’ve started pieces exactly like this several times before.
On Saturday night Payton Gendron, a white male teenager who had spent a significant amount of time since the beginning of the pandemic on far-right extremist sites such as 4chan and 8chan, uploaded to the internet a 180-page personal manifesto laden with right-wing conspiracy theories. He then drove 200 miles to a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Buffalo and recorded himself shooting 13 people, 11 of whom were black. Ten people died. Every part of this series of events is familiar – it was deliberately copycat-ed. We’ve seen elements of the Buffalo shooter’s story many times now: there was Anders Breivik in 2011, Elliot Rodger in 2014, Dylann Roof in 2015, Alek Minassian in 2018, Robert Bowers also in 2018, Brenton Tarrant in 2019, Patrick Wood Crusius also in 2019. This list is by no means comprehensive – there are dozens more. Though not all of these attacks took place in the US, this is a particularly American problem, not helped by lax gun laws and a political class seemingly unmotivated to instil change.
For years, journalists, radicalisation experts, racial justice advocates and online safety groups (as well as anyone who has spent time on these notorious sites) warned that attacks such as this would happen – and not only that they would happen, but that they would start happening a lot. And after this proved to be the case, they spent several more years begging and pleading with those in power to do something in response: legislation, moderation, deradicalisation and prevention programmes have all been suggested.
Instead, lip service has been paid to “shining a light” on “dark corners of the internet”, as though exposure itself is enough to stop what has flourished online, in spite of all evidence indicating otherwise. So, after another racially motivated attack in which the gunman was radicalised in plain sight, an attack politicians and social media companies knew was on its way, you have to wonder: what are you supposed to do? What more is there to say when the exact solutions have already been offered and the processes required have been spelled out, but they have been repeatedly and quietly brushed aside by anyone with real control?
The past two years have made it easier for those in power to ignore this problem. The pandemic has stemmed these types of attacks since 2019, but as the world opens back up, the growing number of conspiracy theorists that have been bred since early 2020 (with spikes in unemployment, less socialisation and more time spent indoors and online) means we are going to see them rise again under a new wave of radicalised men. But it feels numbingly inevitable that the same routine will be adopted: politicians will acknowledge the issue and say that it’s bad, condemn the attacker; there will be an investigation resulting in the same conclusions, and then the story will fizzle out until the next attack comes, maybe in a month or two. The number of deaths and the increasing frequency of attacks all make this a matter of extreme urgency, while the responses treat each incident like it’s an individual, freak accident.
There is a reliable fall-back response we’ve heard countless times from those shirking the responsibility to address radicalisation: it’s complicated. That it’s hard to track what people are doing on these sites, impossible to determine who’s a real threat and who isn’t, and unclear what power governments have over these private companies. They understand the problem, yes, but the necessary action is insurmountably tricky. But this argument, while true in one sense as the issue is indeed complex, doesn’t stack up when we look at how terrorist groups or organised crime are treated. There are huge crime rings and terrorist cells all over the world that operate far less openly than those who are being radicalised online, with origins and identities which are significantly harder to track. Why, then, if this is happening at such an increased rate, with such a formulaic, predictable approach, do we not see the same level of effort from governments and law enforcement being diverted towards online extremism in order to prevent it?
It’d be alluring to think that, in light of so many attacks and despite so much information, counter-extremism, as a tool and as a movement, has failed; that the recommended resources and fixes simply haven’t worked. That what is actually needed is for experts to come up with other ideas. But the reality is that we can’t know: the current offering of solutions may not work, but to confirm that, they need to have been tried.
After news of the Buffalo attack broke on Saturday night, the investigative reporter and online extremism expert Robert Evans tweeted: “In 2019 I had an article out within hours of every 8chan shooting. I will not be doing that with this shooting. Everything I wrote in 2019 is relevant to these shootings. Nothing has changed. Nothing has been done.”
I can’t help but feel the same. Solutions to these attacks exist. What’s missing is any serious interest in stopping them.