While most of the world reacted with horror to the racist May 14 massacre at a Buffalo supermarket, one shadowy corner of the internet – the corner frequented by the accused gunman in the lead-up to his attack – continues to celebrate the murder of 10 Black people and goad each other to similar acts.
One meme, a mock-up of the front page of the New York Daily News, shows a photo of Payton Gendron beside a series of bold-faced headlines, including “the mass shooter we’ve been waiting for” and “could you be next?”
Another image imposes jokes over a still frame from the gunman’s livestream of the attack, showing the moment one woman was shot in the head.
People are also reading…
Yet another takes the form of a “help wanted” poster addressed to white men.
“You already live for our people. Would you KILL for them?” it asks.
According to his online diary, Payton Gendron and Cory Clark – the customer service lead for the Iowa-based body armor manufacturer RMA Armament – interacted over a period of months on both the public social media site Reddit and in a private chatroom for hardcore weapons enthusiasts.
The reaction does not surprise counterterrorism researchers, who have repeatedly warned that a network of anonymous message boards and encrypted messaging channels are incubating the next generation of white supremacist terror. But the challenge, they say, is interrupting these networks before they can inspire the next shooter.
Some of these sites, such as the messaging app Telegram, say they only cooperate with law enforcement in narrow circumstances. Others, including 4chan, have continued to host racist and anti-Semitic content, even after being linked to violent threats. On July 17, another young man opened fire on a mall food court in Greenwood, Ind., killing three people, after reportedly posting Nazi imagery on 4chan.
Over six weeks in May, June and July, The Buffalo News observed repeated calls for further violence in several of these spaces, as well as the sorts of conspiracy theories, jokes and adoration that experts say have grown routine after mass attacks. In an online diary, the Buffalo gunman himself urged users of these platforms to “record everything you can and continue making memes” based on the attack.
“Their goal is not necessarily to create an army of loyal followers,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It’s to find that one guy on 4chan who will click the link, watch the video, save the manifesto in some folder on his computer. And in a year and a half, when he hits that point where … he feels like there’s no other answer, he opens up the PDF, looks up where the gun was from – and goes and makes an order.”
‘The attack is an advertisement’
While racist violence is anything but new, in Buffalo or around the world, experts say Gendron belongs to a distinct subset of extremists – sometimes termed “neo-fascist accelerationists” – who radicalize each other on the internet. Generally speaking, accelerationists say they desire the creation of an all-white “ethnostate,” and believe modern civilization will have to collapse for them to get it. As a result, they plan violent attacks aimed at destabilizing society and inflaming racial tensions.
By design, accelerationists don’t share a leader or formal organization. That makes them more difficult for law enforcement to root out, Lewis said. But they share a culture, an ideology and a reverence for previous accelerationist mass shooters. The Buffalo gunman wrote the names of several such men on the assault rifle he used in his attack, including Brenton Tarrant, who in 2019 killed 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Shooters like the Buffalo gunman are often described as “lone actors,” Georgetown University professor Jacob Ware said, but they are better understood as members of a leaderless movement with extreme political goals, a willingness to use violence and a constant desire to recruit more people into their ideology and social networks. Violence is less the end goal for neo-fascist accelerationists, Ware said, and more the means to attract attention and recruits to a far-right terror movement.
“The attack is an advertisement,” he added, pointing to a 180-page racist screed that Gendron called his “manifesto.”
Accordingly, many people in sympathetic online communities have reacted with approval and admiration to the massacre at Tops. Hundreds of posts collected by The News, academic researchers and Media Matters for America, a left-leaning watchdog group that has infiltrated more than 300 private far-right communities, show video and documents posted online by the shooter spread widely in the hours after his attack, both on mainstream social media and on platforms including 4chan, Telegram and Discord.
Almost immediately after the attack, members of the anonymous message board 4chan began referring to the Buffalo gunman as “Saint Gendron” – a honorific they bestow on mass shooters. One photo posted to 4chan shows the 18-year-old with a halo edited onto his head. Another image posted to a white supremacist Telegram channel lists more than two dozen “saints days,” including Gendron’s birthday and the seven-year anniversary of a racist terrorist attack on a Black church in Charleston, S.C.
Other threads discuss the shooting as though it happened in a video game, a recurrent phenomenon that experts call the “gamification of violence” and that dehumanizes the attack. Some posts praise the gunman’s accuracy, for instance, or assign him “points” for each murder or his choice of weapon. Many have edited or added misogynistic slogans to a specific screenshot from the gunman’s livestream, which shows a rifle pointed at a woman in the Tops parking lot. “Graphics look … sick in this game!” one 4chan user wrote on May 15.
Other threads have fictionalized the attack even further, falsely insisting the government faked the deaths of 10 people.
“They’re happy. I don’t know if that ever gets fully captured” in the media, said Angelo Carusone, the president and CEO of Media Matters. “A couple months from now, I’ll forget the specific memes, I’ll forget a lot of this. But I won’t forget the glee. That, to me, is the big thing. The sheer happiness.”
Platforms, law enforcement still unprepared
It is difficult to determine how many people frequent social networks that host extremist communities, which share little information about their ownership, financial backing or users. According to SimilarWeb, a web analytics service, 4chan averaged 1.3 million American visitors per month between January and June 2022 – but only a handful of the site’s boards host its most extreme content. Researchers at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project of the nonpartisan think tank the Atlantic Council, have documented an extensive network of far-right Telegram channels with thousands of members in each channel.
Thirteen of the indictment’s 27 counts involved using a firearm to commit hate crimes, and the 12-page document revealed the weapons and ammunition law enforcement seized from the suspect’s car at the Tops shooting as well as from two addresses in his hometown of Conklin.
Of those, experts say it is harder still to pinpoint how many people truly endorse violence or would commit it themselves. Members of these communities use humor and irony not only to distance themselves from the violence they discuss, but to create plausible deniability in any future encounters with platform moderators or law enforcement, Lewis said. In other words, most people in these online spaces are extremists, in that they hold extreme views – but only a small number are terrorists. It’s not always possible to predict which are which.
“You only need one guy,” Lewis said.
That there will be future attacks is essentially a given among counterterrorism researchers, though few like to describe them as inevitable. In the past 10 years, accelerationist terrorists have increasingly left behind instructions and calls-to-arms for potential attackers in their online communities, and a string of gunmen have responded. Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, referenced Charleston gunman Dylann Roof in his so-called manifesto. Five months later, Patrick Crusius – who shot roughly four dozen people at an El Paso Walmart, killing half of them – opened his own racist declaration by praising Tarrant.
Gendron named Tarrant, Roof and Crusius in his writings, and researchers say he appears to have modeled elements of his attack – including the embellishments on his weapon, the livestream and plagiarized portions of his “manifesto” – directly after the Christchurch massacre.
In the half-hour before he began shooting, Gendron also invited other Discord users to view a sort of diary he kept on a private server, a Discord spokesperson confirmed. Fifteen users joined the server, where messages encouraged visitors to stitch together and share his work.
“These manifestos are intended to be spread widely within the extremist networks that encourage these terrorists,” Ware said. “These individuals hope to tell their side of the story, but also to inspire the next attacker.”
Gendron’s documents contain an unusual amount of tactical detail. The accused gunman recommended, over dozens of pages, specific assault rifles and training regimens – “almost like an army manual or something,” said Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer for the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
But researchers would not expect to see discussion of those technical materials on the public internet, Media Matters’ Carusone said: Since most members of these accelerationist communities are young and grew up with social media, they are “extremely savvy about law enforcement.”
One warning that circulated on white supremacist Telegram channels in June urged users to aggressively ban people they don’t know, and to cut ties even with personal friends who publicly post “sensitive operational details.”
That presents just one of many challenges to platforms and law enforcement agencies trying to stamp out white supremacist terror. Social media platforms failed to detect and report Gendron before the Buffalo attack, and struggled to suppress his livestreamed video and documents afterward.
Law enforcement has also been slow to adapt to the changing, domestic nature of terror, Lewis said. While federal agents have broad legal authority to investigate and track people with ties to foreign organizations, he added, belonging to an extremist Telegram channel or celebrating violent attacks is rarely enough to trigger an investigation into an American citizen interacting with other Americans.
While the FBI acknowledged that domestic extremism represents the country’s greatest terror threat in 2021, Lewis said it’s “not clear” how the agency has changed its strategy to address it. Meanwhile, in 2020 – the latest year for which data are available – white supremacists carried out nine attacks in the United States, and neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim factions committed an additional three, according to National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
On May 26, Senate Republicans blocked a domestic terrorism bill, prompted in large part by the Buffalo attack, that would have required the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to open offices dedicated to preventing and prosecuting domestic terrorism. Opponents argued that new offices were unnecessary and could open the door to improper surveillance. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul created a similar unit aimed at online extremism one week prior by executive order.
Public scrutiny has in the past encouraged extremists to move to smaller, less visible online platforms, said Beirich, of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“The more obscure it is, the more dark-webby, the fewer people are exposed to it – and that’s a very good thing,” she said.