he US as also the rest of the world are now busy dissecting how an 18-year-old white man could kill 10 people, mostly Black, in a cold-blooded racist shooting May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and show to the world his heinous crime through livestreaming on a popular social media site. Other white-supremacists have also used social media to publicize gruesome attacks, including the mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019. Since the Christchurch shooting, social media companies have been trying, in some ways, to combat videos of atrocities online, including stopping livestreams of attacks faster. However, not enough has been achieved. For instance, Twitch, the site the Buffalo shooter livestreamed on, could make it harder for people to open accounts and instantly upload live videos. Other video-streaming sites like TikTok and YouTube require users to have a certain number of followers before they’re able to stream live.
Available evidence, so far, leaves no one in doubt that the young man, Payton S Gendron, dressed in military fatigue, was goaded to take the murderous course by racist propaganda by rightist racist elements infecting weak minds in the US and other countries with hate. He could be labeled as a product of the mindset these forces are trying to create to fulfill their racist, pseudo-nationalist, autocratic agenda. US investigating agencies and advocates of free speech and social media experts are grappling with the problem of preventing the abuse of social media during such wanton killings. But, that amounts to dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease which is vitiating susceptible minds with hate theories and practices. This mindset can be observed working in present day India too.
It is not merely a coincidence that May 18 will witness America’s most prominent conservative gathering, founded on ideals of personal liberty and limited government, in Budapest where the keynote address will be delivered by a European rightist leader, Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban who is himself accused of undermining democracy and individual rights and spreading toxic propaganda. The European Union has charged Orban, who won re-election by a large margin recently, with curbing media and judicial independence, enriching associates with public funds and recasting election laws to remain entrenched in power. The meeting in Budapest being organised by the US Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is seen by some Republicans as a test of how closely American conservatives are willing to align themselves with a global movement of the far right.
The Buffalo white supremacist hate shooting followed the patterns of similar killings before in Christchurch, El Paso, and Pittsburgh where assailants, racially-motivated and radicalised online, took their ideology to deadly extremes. The gunman in Buffalo, like the ones before him, livestreamed his violent rampage by mounting a camera on his helmet and left a so-called manifesto online. It details his extremist beliefs and is replete with selective statistics, conspiracy theories and internet memes. The file contains reams of racist and anti-Semitic abuse along with straightforward admissions that the author is a fascist and a white supremacist. As in the case of the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, big social media companies are struggling to remove footage of the attack which are popping up on different sites.
But, the main problem appears to be as intractable as ever, which is a worldwide network of young violent extremists, some of whom are motivated to launch deadly attacks against innocent people. The mind of the Buffalo killer has been twisted in such a manner that, even at the age of 18, he conducted himself as an inveterate criminal. He claims he had visited the area in early March according to New York Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia. “We found some things that show that he was here in early March, and then again, we know he was here on Friday (the day before the mayhem), basically doing reconnaissance on the area,” Gramaglia said. The extent of indoctrination is such that he drove for three and a half hours before reaching the supermarket. He is from the city of Conklin, about 200 miles away from the scene of carnage – the Tops Friendly Markets store in a predominantly Black neighbourhood. He shot 13 people, including two white, before surrendering to police. In fact, investigators have unearthed information that he had plans to target more people in other supermarkets and a school. He had meticulously accessed information to make sure that all these areas are peopled predominantly by America’s Black population. Had the police not acted promptly and neutralised him, he would have succeeded in his design to kill more people.
The Buffalo shooting has once again triggered the debate on the role of social media such as Twitch, Twitter and Facebook. Twitch is a gaming platform used by the gunman to broadcast a livestream of the massacre. Twitch allows creators, many with millions of followers, to stream themselves playing video games, chatting with fans, or simply going about their daily lives. The Buffalo killer used a Twitch channel to livestream the assault from a helmet camera. Amazon-owned Twitch said it took down the video within two minutes of the violence starting, but by that time it was already being shared elsewhere including on Facebook and Twitter.
But, the fragmentary nature of modern social media platforms has made it immensely difficult to stem the tide of motivated use of that resource. This is why despite the prompt action by Twitch, the viewing by millions of users in other social media platforms could not be stopped.
The rightist forces are seemingly well aware of the benefits of communication technology. It is not enough that the US President Joe Biden has designated the Buffalo crime as a hate crime. He will be visiting the scene of butchery to give a healing touch. But, that is hardly the solution. The call from some quarters for tightening rules for the operations of social media seems implausible. It is also extremely difficult under the legal system in the USA. More than that concerted efforts are to be made to detoxify young minds infected with racist and warped nationalist ideas. The real threats are posed by the brand of politics championed by the Orbans and the Trumps. Unfortunately, India also seems to have no dearth of such preachers.