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Guns are not a platform problem

August 5 · Issue #361 · View online
The Interface
Tonight, in the aftermath of yet more mass shootings, the internet is once again a swirl of threads. Debates about gun control, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, video games, mental illness, de-platforming, content moderation, and regulation all rage simultaneously on cable news, in print, and on Twitter. The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton — like so many mass shootings before them — overwhelm us in their horror. But we owe a debt to the victims to sort through it as best as we can, and to find a way forward.
Around here we’re primarily interested in the relationship between tech platforms and our democracy. And yet while much attention has focused on the role that 8chan and other hate sites played in fomenting these attacks, the more I worry that the attention is misplaced. We have already identified very good solutions to the problem of mass shootings — and while we can and should talk about what to do with hate platforms, we shouldn’t lose sight of two much more important factors in the past decade’s spike in mass shootings.
The first and most important factor in this weekend’s shootings is, of course, the easy availability of guns. In 2017, Max Fisher and Josh Keller wrote that the United States had 270 million guns and had 90 mass shooters between 1966 and 2012. No other country had more than than 46 million guns or 18 mass shooters.
In 1994, the United States banned assault weapons, and mass shootings dropped by 43 percent. Republicans allowed the ban to expire a decade later, and mass shootings increased by more than 230 percent. At least, those are the estimates that I found today. We don’t even really know how many people are shot each year in the United States, thanks to aggressive lobbying by the gun industry.
The Dayton shooter apparently had no clear racial or political animus, according to CNN. But he did have access to an AR-15-style rifle and 100-round drum magazines.
The relationship between social networks and democracy is dynamic and unpredictable. The relationships between guns and mass shootings is not. The more guns that are on the streets, the more people die, and any discussion of platform culpability should come after gun control.
The second crucial factor in the spate of mass shootings is the United States’ long and awful history of white supremacy. The El Paso shooter’s manifesto protesting a “Hispanic invasion” closely resembles language used ad nauseam by the president and Fox News. As CJ Werleman writes in the Sydney Morning Herald:
It was only two weeks ago when Trump inspired an auditorium full of his supporters to chant “send her back” in reference to the country’s first elected black Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and migrated to the US as the young daughter of refugee parents.
Earlier in the year, Trump smeared all immigrants approaching the US-Mexico border as invaders when he said, “People hate the word ‘invasion’, but that’s what it is.”
The concerted effort among Republican politicians and conservative media outlets to promote the idea of an “invasion” has given cover to white terrorists who want to commit mass murder. We talked about this “stochastic terrorism” last October:
I encountered the idea in a Friday thread from data scientist Emily Gorcenski, who used it to tie together four recent attacks.
In her thread, Gorcenski argues that various right-wing conspiracy theories and frauds, amplified both through mainstream and social media, have resulted in a growing number of cases where men snap and commit violence. “Right-wing media is a gradient pushing rightwards, toward violence and oppression,” she wrote. “One of the symptoms of this is that you are basically guaranteed to generate random terrorists. Like popcorn kernels popping.”
It was clear in October and remains so today: so long as the president, Fox News, and others promote the idea that immigrants and nonwhite citizens are destroying the country, more popcorn kernels will pop — and we’ll see more of the rampages we saw this weekend in El Paso. (It seemed fitting that another rampager, Cesar Sayoc, was sentenced to 20 years in prison today for mailing bombs to the president’s political nemeses.)
The combination of easily available guns and the ruling party promoting a sense of perma-crisis is so powerful that I believe we would see mass murders even if 8chan had never existed. But much effort has been expended over the weekend in unpacking the role of hate sites in these shootings, so let’s see what we can learn.
8chan, which was founded because its users posted content so vile that even the free-speech bastion 4chan wouldn’t tolerate it, became a focus of attention this weekend when the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto there. He was the third shooter to post a manifesto on 8chan before committing murder in the past six months.
Robert Evans, who has studied 8chan extensively, says 8chan contributes to domestic terror by (1) creating a welcome home for people to discuss and promote their crimes and (2) “gamifying” terrorism by encouraging people to beat the previous shooter’s “high score” — murdering more people than the previous shooter. Evans concludes:
In the wake of the Christchurch shooting I published my first Bellingcat article about 8chan. I was interviewed by numerous media agencies about the website, and I warned all of them that additional attacks would follow – every month or two – until something was done. This prediction has proven accurate. Until law enforcement, and the media, treat these shooters as part of a terrorist movement no less organized, or deadly, than ISIS or Al Qaeda, the violence will continue. 
Among the people calling for 8chan to be shut down over the weekend was its creator. Kevin Roose talked to Fredrick Brennan:
“Shut the site down,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It’s not doing the world any good. It’s a complete negative to everybody except the users that are there. And you know what? It’s a negative to them, too. They just don’t realize it.”
On Monday, 8chan went down after web services provider Cloudflare ended its relationship with the site. Everyone presumes it will find some sort of service provider eventually, though it has struggled to find new service providers all day. Much of the discussion today focused on what practical effect shutting down 8chan might have on future terrorist attacks. I’m skeptical it will have much, though I’m glad 8chan is on the ropes — eliminating sites that host terrorist content makes it harder and more expensive for future terrorists to set up shop and recruit others to their cause.
President Trump gave a speech in which he suggested social platforms should become adjuncts of law enforcement, working with the Department of Justice “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.” It it not clear how such a tool would work, and having Facebook or Twitter analyze every post and referring suspicious ones to the government would seem to infringe greatly on our civil liberties.
Notably, the government was building tools to counter violent extremism in 2016, before Trump pulled the funding. As Peter Beinart recounted in The Atlantic last year:
In the waning days of Barack Obama’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security awarded a set of grants to organizations working to counter violent extremism, including among white supremacists. One of the grantees was Life After Hate, which The Hill has called “one of the only programs in the U.S. devoted to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other white supremacy groups.” Another grant went to researchers at the University of North Carolina who were helping young people develop media campaigns aimed at preventing their peers from embracing white supremacy and other violent ideologies. But soon after Trump took office, his administration canceled both of these grants. In its first budget, it requested no funding for any grants in this field.
It’s part of a pattern of neglect. The grants were administered by the Office of Community Partnerships, which works intimately with local governments and community organizations to prevent jihadist and white-nationalist radicalization. In Obama’s last year, according to the former director, George Selim, the office boasted 16 full-time employees, roughly 25 contractors, and a budget of more than $21 million. The Trump administration has renamed it the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, and cut its staff to eight full-time employees and its budget to less than $3 million.
It’s little wonder then, that in the wake of the attack, six former counterterrorism directors for the National Security Council wrote a letter calling for “a significant infusion of resources to support federal, state, and local programs aimed at preventing extremism and targeted violence.”
Programs that work to reduce extremism can be useful. So can disrupting internet forums where terrorists organize and support one another. But it would be a mistake to focus on how easy it is for terrorists to meet on the internet rather than on how easy it is for them to buy AR-15s. We can’t predict the effect of shutting down 8chan and forcing their users to disperse. But we can predict the effect of taking automatic weapons out of their hands.
I pray that we will, and soon.

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And finally ...
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