a sidewalk chalk mural at the scene of a mass shooting in Buffalo
Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The infinite loop of online extremism

Source Code

Good morning. Americans are still reeling from a trio of mass shootings that took place over the weekend, and despite all the thoughts and prayers, it seems the solutions to prevent massacres like the one in Buffalo, New York, are still out of reach. Are tech companies and legislators incapable of solving a problem as out of control as online terrorism?

Is online hate a solvable problem?

Tech platforms' patchwork approach to content moderation has made them a hotbed for hate speech that can turn deadly, as it did this past weekend in Buffalo. The alleged shooter that killed 10 in a historically Black neighborhood used Discord to plan his rampage for months and livestreamed it on Twitch. We’ve seen this all before.

In 2019, a white supremacist murdered 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He viewed the killings as a meme. To disseminate that meme, he turned to the same place more than 1 billion other users do: Facebook. The Buffalo shooter was inspired by that livestream.

The platforms change, but the pattern is destined to repeat. Tech companies are playing defense instead of offense against online hate and fail to work together. Online terrorism experts fear it’s an endless loop.

  • “They’ll take the hits when someone uses their platform to post terrorism and they will take the the bad op-eds about them, because they know that we've been here before and we'll be here again,” Jon Lewis, a research fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told me.
  • But even if one company quickly addresses violence on its platform, another may be slow to act or not act at all. Twitch took down the Buffalo shooter’s livestream within two minutes after it began, but the video was still screen-recorded and posted across other social media platforms, where it was viewed millions of times.
  • Gab, an alt-right site that hosts neo-Nazi groups, and 4chan, a popular site among the far- and alt-right, are likely landing spots if, say, Twitch came up with policies making it harder for white nationalists to share hate on its platform.

Tech companies have done some work to prevent the spread of mass violence. Twitch, Facebook, Discord and Twitter are members of an anti-terrorism industry group that shares digital signatures of violent content to identify and take it down more quickly.

  • Smaller sites like 4chan have not joined the anti-terrorism groups that the bigger companies are part of, and the Buffalo gunman reportedly spent much of his time on the latter two platforms.
  • In addition to stopping the spread of videos, there are some ways Twitch and other platforms can prevent a livestream from beginning in the first place, such as making it more difficult to start accounts and requiring a user to have a certain number of followers to be able to go live.

But without legislation, we’re at an impasse. In the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, Australia passed a law that will fine social media platforms and jail executives if they don’t quickly remove violent content. It seems unlikely that will happen in the U.S. anytime soon, if ever, given that Congress has neither the time nor the inclination to even begin to tackle the issue.

  • “The legislation lacks teeth, law enforcement have their hands tied behind their backs and lack resources, the platforms lack the will (hate, afterall is profitable), and users are far too often bystanders who simply scroll on by,” Cardiff University professor Matthew Williams, who heads hate crime data hub HateLab, told me.

The question now becomes: How many more mass shootings can we take before something is done? At the moment, it seems there is no limit.

Sarah Roach (email | twitter)


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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Update: This story was updated to include the anti-terrorism groups Discord is part of.

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