New York Attorney General investigates platforms after mass shooting

New York Attorney Genreal Letitia James speaks at an event in 2017. (Photo by Alec Perkins via Wikimedia Commons)
New York Attorney Genreal Letitia James speaks at an event in 2017. (Photo by Alec Perkins via Wikimedia Commons)

The Attorney General of New York is probing several online platforms that were allegedly used by a gunman to plot and carry out a mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store last week.

In a statement published to Twitter on Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said her office was investigating streaming service Twitch, the instant messaging platform Discord and community platforms 4Chan and 8kun (previously 8Chan) where documents and content related to the mass shooting were published.

Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old New York resident, is accused of carrying out a mass shooting at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo last Saturday. Thirteen people were shot in the incident; of those, 10 died, many at the scene of the crime.

Within hours of the mass shooting, a user of the popular message board 4Chan claimed to have witnessed the crime carry out in real time on Twitch, a streaming service popular with videogamers that was acquired by Amazon in 2014.

Screen captures of the Twitch broadcast were posted to 4Chan, according to posts reviewed by The Desk. One image showed the Twitch stream in question was viewed by as many as 22 people at one point, and that the broadcast lasted for nearly a half-hour.

Eventually, a six-minute excerpt of the Twitch broadcast was posted to file sharing services and widely disseminated on social media. Later, a Twitch spokesperson confirmed their platform was used by the gunman to broadcast his crime; the platform claims it was able to stop the broadcast two minutes into the shooting spree.

Elsewhere on the Internet, users quickly discovered a 180-page document that was published by the shooting suspect on Discord, a real-time instant message service.

At a news conference, New York Governor Kathy Hochul decried social media platforms that were used to broadcast the attack, saying it was her desire to see them held accountable.

How lawmakers intend to hold public platforms like Twitch and Discord to account is unclear. Executives and other workers at the companies that own the services have not been accused of wrongdoing, and it does not appear anyone at the services knew about the attack before it was carried out.

It was not the first time that an attack of that kind had been broadcast live through an online service: In 2019, an Australian named Brendon Tarrant reportedly used Facebook to stream himself attacking unsuspecting worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand. Prior to the attack, Tarrant reportedly published a lengthy manifesto, copies of which were widely circulated on Twitter, Reddit and other websites.

The video and the manifesto clearly indicated the gunman’s intentions: To create a campaign of terror against people based on their religion. Three years later, Gendron — a self-proclaimed white supremacist who expressed hate for Black and Jewish individuals, among others — would claim Tarrant as inspiration behind his copycat attack on the supermarket in Buffalo.

In the three years in-between the New Zealand attack and the Buffalo shooting spree, social media platforms have proclaimed their intention to thwart a person’s ability to use their platform to spread content tinged with racism and terrorism. The end result has been mixed: Months after the New Zealand attack, a gunman opened fire on a synagogue in Germany, with more than a half-hour of the terror campaign broadcast on Twitch.

Once the content is published on the Internet, it can be difficult to scrub: Video copies of the New Zealand, Germany and Buffalo attacks are still available online, as are the manifestos associated with them. News packages of the terror attacks produced by traditional media outlets are also still available on Twitter and Facebook, even when they incorporate excerpts of the gunmen’s materials (individual reporters, on the other hand, have had their accounts disabled when they share the same content, even in the context of journalism).

Legal experts say there’s currently no federal law that would preclude social media websites from sharing terrorism material. And, in fact, many have in the past: Content posted by well-known terror groups in the Middle East have proliferated on platforms like Twitter and Facebook for years. During the height of the Islamic State, it was not uncommon for members associated with the group to upload beheadings and other murders to YouTube and the Internet Archive, then link to the content on Twitter.

So it is unclear what New York’s Attorney General is investigating from a legal standpoint, but that isn’t stopping her office from doing so. But statements made by James this week suggest her position is that social media companies are not doing enough to stop terrorists from sharing material in the planning stages and when an attack is unfolding.

“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. As we continue to mourn and honor the lives that were stolen, we are taking serious action to investigate these companies for their roles in this attack.”

In later remarks, James painted Twitch, Discord and others as “dangerous and hateful platforms,” though neither of those platforms operate with the intention of being a nexus for terrorism. To James, that is beside the point — the fact that Gendron was able to plot his attack with precision in a Discord chat room (where, apparently, he was the only participant), then later attempt to stream it to Twitch using an account that was mostly dormant until the day of the attack, was enough to consider the platforms a co-conspirator.

To James, the excuse that no one at the companies knew the attack was coming wasn’t good enough, because, in her view, Gendron’s alleged activities on their platforms were precise enough that they should have been able to predict it well before it happened.

“It has been reported that the shooter posted online for months about his hatred for specific groups, promoted white supremacist theories, and even discussed potential plans to terrorize an elementary school, church, and other locations he believed would have a considerable community of Black people to attack,” James said. “Those postings included detailed information about plans to carry out an attack in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo and his visits to the site of the shooting in the weeks prior. The shooter also streamed the attack on another social media platform, which was accessible to the public, and posted a 180-page manifesto online about his bigoted views.”

James said her ability to investigate the matter comes from a New York statute that concerns probes involving public peace, public safety and public justice. Her office affirmed the investigation was launched at the urging of Governor Hochul, who made her views about the social platforms known the day of the attack.

Twitch’s owner Amazon has not indicated whether it will respond to New  York’s investigation. A spokesperson for Discord told numerous tech publications that it intends to cooperate with the probe, adding that the company is “continuing to do everything we can to assist law enforcement.”

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