New York Attorney General Letitia James will launch an investigation into the role that social media and online message boards played in the tragedy that unfolded in Buffalo over the weekend.
On Saturday, an 18-year-old shooter opened fire at a Tops supermarket, killing 10 people and wounding three others. In online materials, the suspected shooter describes how discovering white supremacy on 4chan radicalized his thinking and ultimately inspired him to carry out the deadly attack.
The investigation was prompted by a referral from New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who called on social media companies to monitor content more aggressively for dangerous extremism in the days following the mass shooting.
“I am seeking your assistance to investigate the specific online platforms that were used to broadcast and amplify the acts and intentions of the mass shooting that took place in Buffalo on May 14, 2022 and determine whether specific companies have civil or criminal liability for their role in promoting, facilitating, or providing a platform to plan and promote violence,” Hochul wrote in a letter to the AG’s office Wednesday.
The attorney general’s office plans to examine social apps and sites “including but not limited to” Twitch, Discord, 4chan and 8chan.
“Time and time again, we have seen the real-world devastation that is borne of these dangerous and hateful platforms, and we are doing everything in our power to shine a spotlight on this alarming behavior and take action to ensure it never happens again,” James said.
Her office did not provide much detail on the investigation, which lumps mainstream social media services with content moderation together with notorious, anything goes hubs of extremism like 4chan and 8chan. While the former will likely comply with the AG’s office, the latter two web forums are less likely to humor the investigation.
8chan, which is run out of the Philippines, in particular is a hotbed of activity for extremists planning racist violence. Mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch, New Zealand, Poway, California and now Buffalo all posted their plans and screeds to 8chan prior to their deadly attacks. In a journal entry prior to the attack, the Buffalo shooter noted that he would publish his writing on 8chan and 4chan in addition to sending it to his Discord servers and friends list.
The web forum that appears to be the main source of the suspected shooter’s ideals, 4chan, refuses to make any proactive efforts to moderate content and has long incubated white supremacy and other dangerous forms of extremism.
Amazon-owned Twitch detected the shooter’s livestream within two minutes of the violence beginning and removed the video, though it continues to circulate openly on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not clear if the AG’s investigation will also examine the spread of the graphic video, which has been copied many times and shared around the web.
The suspected shooter published his plans in detail to a private Discord server and on Google Docs, but neither private digital space is scanned to detect extremist threats. The question of how much online platforms should monitor non-public spaces is a difficult one given privacy concerns and existing laws, but it’s also a conversation we’re likely to be hearing a lot about in the coming days.