Following last weekend’s livestreamed mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, the state’s attorney general launched investigations into the social media platforms the suspected killer used to publicize his act.
On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced several platforms, including Amazon-owned Twitch, Discord and message board sites 4chan and 8chan, would be under review by her office. The Buffalo suspect, a white nationalist, may have used those platforms to stream or plan his racist massacre that left 10 dead, James said in a statement.
Many Americans have yet to understand just how dangerous these ostensibly fun platforms can be.
“The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate,” James said. “The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable.”
The suspect allegedly wore a helmet camera and livestreamed the attack on Twitch, a popular platform among gamers. Twitch said it removed the video minutes after it was posted, but screenshots showing the camera’s vantage point — showing a rifle mowing down innocent people inside a supermarket — suggested the attack was designed to resemble a video game, like Goldeneye or Call of Duty.
That, to me, is an on-the-nose embodiment of the issue James and others wanting to fight violent extremism have to contend with: the gamification of the online social experience.
To be clear: I’m not quite saying video games themselves are the source of white nationalist killers. What I’m saying is that the architects of online platforms today are often creating experiences that, like games, introduce surreality into our lives, seem to encourage over-the-top behavior, trivialize important issues and stoke social division all for the sake of engagement.
Buffalo wasn’t a total apparition. Twitch has been used several times to broadcast massacres. An investigation into the platform should look both at the communities that thrive on the platform and might be prone to extremism, and how the platform’s reward system, which allows viewers to pay streamers for completing certain tasks, promotes extremist conduct.
James will also be investigating Discord, another popular platform among gamers, which the suspect allegedly used to plan the shooting and post racist rants weeks earlier. Discord has a well-documented history of being used by far-right extremists, including backers of the Jan. 6 insurrection and organizers of the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Hopefully, James’ investigations will examine how these groups proliferate on the platform and how coordinated, gamified attacks — known as “raids” — factor into extremist activity.
We also know James’ nonexhaustive list of platforms to investigate includes 4chan and 8chan, two largely unmoderated forum sites that have become cesspools of racism. Both sites allow users to post bigoted content, which is often rewarded using a point system that’s frequently acknowledged with a game-like leaderboard.
People with an interest in combating extremism need to understand that gamification — whether that means point systems or algorithms that effectively lead us through a customized world of potentially harmful content — is key in promoting it. Many Americans have yet to understand just how dangerous these ostensibly fun platforms can be.