How Does Online Racism Spawn Mass Shooters?

White nationalist terrorism is becoming normalized through internet forums.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A woman places flowers beside a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Wal-Mart where a shooting left 20 people dead in El Paso, Texas, on August 4, 2019.
A woman places flowers beside a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Wal-Mart where a shooting left 20 people dead in El Paso, Texas, on August 4, 2019. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Two mass shootings rocked the United States again this weekend, the first in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, the second on Sunday in Dayton, Ohio. Both killers were young white men, and while the ideology behind the Dayton attack is not yet known, the El Paso shooter posted an online manifesto espousing his racist ideology on the far-right website 8chan—as did the attackers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March and at the Poway synagogue, north of San Diego, in April. Other mass shootings—such as the recent Gilroy Garlic Festival attack, the Pittsburgh synagogue murders in 2018, and the church killings in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015—have also been inspired by white nationalist ideas.

Experts, joined by some politicians, are increasingly classifying these acts as terrorism, part of a global white nationalist movement that recruits or inspires potential shooters.

Where are they radicalized?

Two of the chief sites for online white nationalist radicalization are 4chan and 8chan. 4chan is a long-running forum, set up in 2003 chiefly for the discussion of Japanese anime and manga. Today, roughly 22 million users, the majority of them young men, post on the site every month to a variety of themed imageboards such as /v/ (video games), /lgbt/, and /x/ (paranormal). But noticeably, the site is totally anonymous, with no logins required, usernames optional, and threads set to expire after a certain time; users are often known as “anons.”

Plenty of goofy fun has emerged from 4chan—it invented rickrolling and lolcats—but it also rapidly took on a misogynistic, bullying culture, producing infamous online harassment campaigns such as Gamergate, a targeted assault on women in the video game industry that engulfed the internet in 2014. The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which sees Donald Trump as fighting a vast, global pedophile conspiracy—began with 4chan posts, and white supremacists from sites like the neo-Nazi Stormfront have been actively recruiting on 4chan since at least 2012.

The most notorious part of 4chan is /pol/, short for “politically incorrect,” a politics discussion board founded in 2011 to replace the original /news/ board after it became overrun with racists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, /pol/ itself was rapidly overrun with racists; the overarching culture of the board is far-right, violently racist, and enthusiastically supportive of Trump. (It should be noted, however, that other parts of 4chan have expressed their dislike for /pol/.)

8chan, meanwhile, founded in 2013, is a more extremist version of /pol/. Hosted in the Philippines, the site has become a cesspool of anti-Muslim conspiracies, neo-Nazism, and other far-right content. 8chan’s version of /pol/ has a single purpose, argues Robert Evans at the open-source investigative firm Bellingcat: “to radicalize their fellow anons to ‘real-life effortposting,’ i.e. acts of violence in the physical world.”

The culture of both 4chan and 8chan is deliberately ironic, over the top, and extreme. This gives cover for users to claim their posts are merely joking—and accounts for some of the deliberate trolling found inside the Christchurch manifesto. In part, throwing in random references to unconnected topics such as the video game Fortnite or online memes is a strategy to get the media to pick up and amplify the message through stories on unrelated topics. The dehumanization involved in racist jokes also hardens participants, wearing away any residual empathy for others.

How do people get drawn into racist forums?

One of the vectors pushing impressionable men and women to racist forums is mass media, said Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist and expert on online radicalization. Shootings such as Christchurch draw attention to the sites and the message, and media coverage ends up amplifying it. The broken recommendation system of sites such as YouTube, deliberately gamed by the far-right, ends up pointing young men toward racist ideologies.

The mechanisms of recruitment, meanwhile, work much as with other terrorist groups such as the Islamic State; they take lonely young men and give them a sense of purpose and identity. But instead of the alternative society offered by Islamic State membership, violent and racist online platforms build toward single murderous events: The language used on the forums to encourage potential shooters combines nihilism and toxic masculinity, goading them with anti-gay slurs and challenging them as “wannabes” if they fail. The anonymity of the sites mixes with the desire of mass shooters to be known: Real-world recognition becomes the final reward as they call on their fellow anons to witness them.

And while white nationalist terrorism lacks a single identifiable group such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, there’s no doubt that people are actively recruiting through these sites, said Tufekci, and that a template has evolved for these attacks.

“A lot of us watched ISIS when it was being ignored, and it was only after they started beheading Westerners that they started getting taken seriously, and there was a collective effort [by authorities and Silicon Valley] that made it much harder to recruit this way. They started late, but they did crack down,” Tufekci said. “There might not be a name or physical territory such as what ISIS held, but there’s a definite brand. Maybe this is the way 21st-century terrorism will be. They clearly reference one another. Oklahoma, [Timothy] McVeigh. They have literature. They have their own ways of talking. They have in-jokes.”

The connective ideological tissue is racist demographic theories with European origins, cited by both the Christchurch and El Paso shooters. These postulate that white Europeans are in danger of being overwhelmed through immigration, with the collusion of their own elites, and call for violent attacks to terrorize potential immigrants and force racial war.

Yet the hardcore white nationalist terrorists can be hard to distinguish from the general nastiness of the forums: As with any internet project, a small group of hardcore users is joined by a broad, diffuse community. With the Christchurch attack, the initial livestreaming was viewed by fewer than 200 people—none of whom reported it. But there was then a mass effort to get the video through Facebook’s filters, which failed to block approximately 20 percent of the 1.5 million attempts to post video of the murders.

One relatively new aspect is the “gamification” of terrorism, with references to “high scores” of murders. This shouldn’t be confused with some Republicans’ efforts to blame video games themselves for the killings; instead, it uses a language familiar to young men to express old sentiments—such as those of the Oklahoma bomber.

What can be done to stop this?

Following the Christchurch shootings, internet service providers in New Zealand blocked 4chan and 8chan. But by then it’s already too late, Tufekci said: Such sites are only the final step in the process, and it’s relatively easy to evade such blocks. She suggested that internet companies need to get tougher, setting stricter terms of service that boot white nationalists off sites quickly and reacting to events quicker. “YouTube could turn off recommendations until it figures this out. People start off looking for one thing, and three clicks later they’re in ‘the Holocaust never happened’ land,” Tufekci said. While media has already started avoiding naming the terrorists where possible, she suggested that they should also avoid highlighting the number of deaths.

Another possibility is going after the funding of far-right sites. For instance, 8chan, based in the Philippines, depends on Amazon’s tacit support to keep operating. White nationalist terrorism plays into other forms of fear deployed through racist state institutions; tellingly, some of the victims of the El Paso shooting reportedly failed to seek medical treatment out of fear of being picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

And, of course, the unique U.S. permissiveness with gun ownership empowers killers. Virtually every other developed country that has experienced a mass shooting has passed stricter gun laws in the aftermath. In the United States, with 251 mass shootings this year alone, they have remained a political impossibility.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer