New York Attorney General Letitia James will launch an investigation into the role 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 the online materials, the suspected shooter describes how the discovery of 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 more aggressively monitor content for dangerous extremism in the days after the mass shooting.
“I am seeking your help in investigating the specific online platforms 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 bear 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 on 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 stems from these dangerous and hateful platforms, and we are doing everything in our power to highlight this alarming behavior and take action to ensure it never happens again. James said.
His office didn’t provide many details about the investigation, which groups major social media services with content moderation along with notorious hubs of extremism like 4chan and 8chan. While the former is likely to meet the AG’s office, the latter two web forums are less likely to follow the investigation.
8chan, which is run out of the Philippines, in particular is a hotbed of activity for extremists plotting racist violence. Mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch, New Zealand, Poway, California and now Buffalo posted their plans and rants on 8chan before their deadly attacks. In a diary entry before the attack, the Buffalo shooter noted that he would post 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 alleged shooter’s ideals, 4chan, refuses to make proactive efforts to moderate content and has long incubated white supremacy and other dangerous forms of extremism.
Amazon-owned Twitch detected the live stream of the shooter within two minutes of the violence beginning and removed the video, though it continues to circulate openly on platforms including Twitter and Facebook. It is unclear whether the AG’s investigation will also examine the spread of the graphic video, which has been copied many times and shared on the web.
The suspected shooter posted his plans in detail on a private Discord server and Google Docs, but no private digital space is scanned for 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 hear a lot about in the coming days.