In Wake of Buffalo Shooting, Calls for Accountability for Online Platforms

In the wake of Saturday’s killings of 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store, allegedly by a white man driven by white-supremacist ideology, U.S. civil rights groups are calling on social media companies to be more aggressive about policing online hate speech and the sharing of racist incitements to violence.

The 18-year-old who is believed to have carried out the killings wrote, in a 180-page document released in advance of the attack, that he had become a white supremacist after reading about racist ideology on various websites, including the notoriously unregulated site 4chan.

As of Monday afternoon, the site still contained links to the document, which overflows with hateful rhetoric and accurately describes how the attack was to take place, as well as the weapons, equipment and tactics used by the alleged killer.

The document also appears to refer to so-called great replacement theory — the idea that there is a conspiracy to flood the U.S. with nonwhite immigrants in order to change electoral patterns and disadvantage white voters. Long a staple of fringe internet white supremacy groups, versions of replacement theory have recently been mainstreamed by, among others, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson.

On Monday night, Carlson addressed the killings, and the calls to restrict comments considered “hate speech” by the government.

“What is hate speech?” Carlson asked at the beginning of his show. “Well, it’s speech that our leaders hate. So because a mentally ill teenager murdered strangers, you cannot be allowed to express your political views out loud.”

In addition to publishing his document online, the alleged killer also used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast the killings on the live-streaming platform Twitch.

Calls for accountability

“There’s got to be a recognition of the role that social media, and therefore social media companies, can play in ferreting out the use of technology to promote hate,” Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, told VOA.

“This guy was radicalized on the internet. Who’s producing this content? Why is it not taken down? Americans must make the distinction that free speech does not allow you to … promote racism, and to promote antisemitism, Islamophobia, all sorts of hatred and also suggest that violence is the appropriate response to hate,” Morial said.

“We have to decide as a society, as a country: how are we going to address domestic terrorism?” Derrick Johnson, CEO of the NAACP, said in an appearance on MSNBC. “How are we going to address the platforms that allow for this type of hate radicalization to take place? Whether it is on social media, whether it’s Fox News, at some point, we have to stop repeating these stories.”

“The real question is what are we going to do about it?” Johnson continued. “When will Facebook, when will the other social media platforms be held accountable? When will Fox News be held accountable? When will we deal with a gun industry that continues to allow this to happen? This nation has to deal with domestic terrorism. We must do so aggressively. We must do so decisively. So we won’t continue to repeat this same story over and over again.”

Response widespread

Although the alleged killer’s targets on Saturday were Black residents of Buffalo, his writings revealed broad hatred of other ethnic groups, most notably Jews, but also all nonwhite people living on what he described as “White lands.”

The response to the killings came from across the spectrum of groups working to protect minority rights in the U.S., and many included calls for more regulation of online hate speech.

“The murderous attack of the gunman at the Buffalo supermarket was not an isolated hate crime, but the result of racially motivated violent White extremists who spread hate on the internet and beyond,” Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said in a statement.

She called on the Department of Justice to prosecute the killings as a hate crime, and said the group is “asking law enforcement to shut down these networks of hate before more innocent people are hurt or killed.”

“This was yet another predicable attack by an avowed white supremacist who imbibed hateful conspiracy theories online and then turned to violent action, this time targeting mostly Black victims,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.

“We know the shooter targeted the Black community, and apparently did so in part because he sought to ignite a ‘holy war’ between ‘Jews and Gentiles.’ We cannot remain complacent in the face of this continuing and serious national security threat,” he said. “More must be done — now — to push back against the racist and antisemitic violence propounded by the far right.”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution safeguards free speech, including speech that shocks or offends. But that protection does not extend to speech that incites violence or puts the public in danger.

Action urged

Many groups called for a widespread response to the problem at the state and federal levels.

In an email exchange with VOA, the Southern Poverty Law Center recommended multiple measures. According to Susan Corke, director of the law center’s Intelligence Project, it is vital for elected leaders and others in positions of authority to condemn racist attacks and racist language. The group also called for federal agencies to provide more funding for early intervention and for programs to support victims of racist violence.

“Tech companies must create — and enforce — Terms of Service and policies to ensure that social media platforms, payment service providers and other internet-based services do not provide forums where hateful activities and extremism can grow and lead to domestic terrorism,” she said. “Social media platforms and online payment service providers must act to disrupt the funding of hate online, to prevent their services from helping to incubate and bankroll terrorists and extremism.”

Legislation pending

Several civil rights organizations called on lawmakers to support the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, a bill pending before both houses of Congress.

The legislation, according to the Congressional Research Service, “establishes new requirements to expand the availability of information on domestic terrorism, as well as the relationship between domestic terrorism and hate crimes. It authorizes domestic terrorism components within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute domestic terrorism.”

Among other things, the bill would require law enforcement agencies to jointly report on domestic terrorism, “including white-supremacist-related incidents or attempted incidents.” It also creates an interagency task force “to analyze and combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services and federal law enforcement agencies.”