(NEW YORK) — A scathing report released Tuesday by the New York Attorney General’s office slams dark web platforms for “radicalizing” the teenage suspect in the racially motivated Buffalo grocery store mass shooting that left 10 Black people dead.
State Attorney General Letitia James released the report, alleging several online platforms played roles in the May 14 mass shooting by radicalizing the suspect, Payton Gendron, as he consumed voluminous amounts of racist and violent content, and then by allowing him to broadcast the deadly attack.
The report found anonymous, largely unmoderated websites and platforms, like 4chan, allegedly influenced Gendron. It also said livestreaming platforms like Twitch were “weaponized” to publicize and encourage copycat attacks.
“The tragic shooting in Buffalo exposed the real dangers of unmoderated online platforms that have become breeding grounds for white supremacy,” James said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “Today I met with the victims’ families to share the findings of this report. This report is further proof that online radicalization and extremism is a serious threat to our communities, especially communities of color.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who issued a referral earlier this year asking James to study the role online platforms played in the Buffalo attack, called the report “a chilling account of factors that contributed to this incident and, importantly, a road map toward greater accountability.”
“For too long, hate and division have been spreading rampant on online platforms — and as we saw in my hometown of Buffalo, the consequences are devastating,” Hochul said in a statement.
Some loved ones of the victims in the Buffalo rampage praised James’ report, saying seeing their relatives murdered in an online livestream compounded their pain.
“We are pleased with the investigation on the impact social media may have had on the shooter. That’s an area of keen interest for us because we’re very interested in the circumstances that allowed for this to take place, systems that may have helped radicalize this person,” Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose 86-year-old mother Ruth Whitfield was killed in the attack, told ABC News.
Wayne Jones, who whose 65-year-old Celestine Chaney was also killed in the shooting, said tackling the graphic images and racist comments proliferating on social media is long overdue.
“They played an important role in this (massacre). They have immunity, so they just let anything on, including showing my mother being killed along with the rest of the victims,” Jones told ABC News.
Mark Talley said he will have to live forever with the image he saw online of the gunman fatally shooting his mother, Geraldine Talley, in the head.
“I love it,” Talley told ABC News of the attorney general’s report. “I don’t see how you can have websites in which you can say openly racist things. It’s nice to see somebody is trying to go after them.”
The attorney general’s findings came with a call for new legislation to address what James called “a lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability” she said allows hateful and extremist views to proliferate online.
“The anonymity offered by 4chan and platforms like it, and their refusal to moderate content in any meaningful way ensures that these platforms are and remain breeding grounds for racist hate speech and radicalization,” the report said.
James’ office examined several online platforms used by Gendron, including 4chan, 8kun, Reddit, Discord, Twitch and YouTube. Investigators also found graphic content of the Buffalo shooting or the suspect’s manifesto on other online platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Rumble.
Gendron, according to the state attorney general’s investigators, viewed on 4chan a brief clip of the 2019 mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The report found the suspect’s radicalization deepened through engagement with virulent racist and anti-Semitic content posted by users on 4chan.
The 19-year-old suspect is accused of planning the massacre for months — including traveling to the Tops store on the predominantly Black East Side of Buffalo, a more than three-hour drive from his home — to sketch the layout and count the number of Black people present, according to federal prosecutors.
James’ report echoes evidence uncovered by federal and state investigators digging through Gendron’s social media accounts.
“Gendron’s motive for the mass shooting was to prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar attacks,” federal prosecutors allege in a criminal complaint filed against the suspect in June.
The suspect, who is white, has been charged in federal and state courts with multiple counts of murder and hate crimes. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
During the Buffalo attack, Gendron allegedly livestreamed the mass shooting on Twitch.
James’ report found platforms like 4chan and Twitch lack oversight, transparency and accountability for allowing hateful and extremist views to proliferate online, leading to radicalization and violence.
When discussing its policy on such content, the report quoted a head 4chan moderator saying, “it’s not even against the rules” because “the footage itself isn’t illegal, any more than footage of any act of violence is illegal.”
“In the absence of changes to the law, platforms like 4chan will not take meaningful action to prevent the proliferation of this kind of content on its site,” the attorney general’s report said.
James called for federal and state reforms to combat online extremism and violence, including state legislation that would penalize individuals who reshare or repost content showing violent acts and criminalize graphic images or videos created by a perpetrator of a homicide.
The attorney general is also recommending changes to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act to increase accountability of online platforms and require companies take reasonable steps to prevent unlawful violent criminal content from appearing on their platforms.
Twitch issued a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Buffalo attack, saying it stopped the gunman’s live feed in two minutes.
“We take our responsibility to protect our community extremely seriously, and trust and safety is a major area of investment,” Twitch said in its statement, adding it was continuously examining the Buffalo shooting and “sharing those learnings with our peers in the industry to support a safer internet overall.”
In an updated statement released Sunday, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said that as of Aug. 15 it identified more than 1,151 “militarized social movements” mostly associated with the far-right conspiracy group QAnon and removed about 4,200 pages, 20,800 groups, 200 events, 59,800 Facebook profiles and 8,900 Instagram accounts.
“We continue to strengthen our enforcement by identifying additional militarized social movements and new terms associated with QAnon,” Meta said. “We’ll continue consulting experts to inform our strategy and will identify and remove content accordingly.”
Discord also released a statement in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying, “We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families, and we will do everything we can to assist law enforcement in the investigation.”
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