The intersection between the Buffalo mass shooting and its related online content provides more evidence that the lines between free speech, dangerous speech and unlawful speech are blurring at the speed of a keystroke.
It’s believed that 4Chan, the anonymous imageboard popular with far-right users, helped spoon-feed the “great replacement” theory (which suggests that a cabal of nonwhite immigrants are trying to replace white people and European culture by increasing the minority population) to the 18-year-old Buffalo shooting suspect. The suspect, accused of killing 10 people and wounded three at a Buffalo supermarket, most of them Black, livestreamed the massacre on the online platform Twitch (the platform removed the content) and posted a racist screed justifying his shooting online.
The volatile lie of the conspiracy theory isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s on the rise.
At the same time, Elon Musk, who is proposing to buy Twitter, is championing unfettered free speech on the platform. His cause may excite those who think Twitter users should be able to tweet whatever they want without the threat of suspension or removal from the platform, but Musk’s view of free speech collides with the reality of radicalization.
Musk has repeatedly said he’ll allow on Twitter anything that’s legal, seemingly defining free speech as anything short of a crime: “By free speech I mean that which matches the law.” Republican leaders were quick to praise Musk’s potential Twitter takeover as a “return” to free speech. Several GOP members of Congress wrote him a gushing letter in anticipation of his ascension to the Twitter throne. Their enthusiasm may have grown when Musk said he’d likely restore former President Donald Trump’s account, which Twitter banned after Trump’s incendiary remarks after the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
It almost doesn’t matter whether Musk knowingly intends to turn Twitter into an even more harmful platform for rapid radicalization or, as some believe, he is perilously naïve to the threat and oblivious to the gray area between benign speech and clear violations of law such as direct threats of violence or threats to life. Musk’s definition of free speech doesn’t come with any responsibility; that makes him the wrong person to lead a social media platform.
Not only did social media play a role in the planning and execution of the shooter’s killing of 10 innocent people but it continues to play a role in making that livestream available on other platforms after Twitch removed it. According to The New York Times, within 24 hours of the shooting, the video, or clips of it, was posted on a site called Streamable and viewed over three million times before it was removed. Twitter and Facebook carried a link to the video that was shared hundreds of times immediately after the shooting. It’s still out there.
Even as social media platforms scrambled to remove content directly linked to the alleged shooter, some Americans, even elected officials, did their part to double down on conspiracy theories and lies related to the shooting by — of course — posting on social media. Within 48 hours of the shooting, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, tweeted her replacement theory mantra: “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote,” she tweeted. “Like the vast majority of Americans, Republicans want to secure our borders and protect election integrity.” An Arizona state senator pushed a Telegram post inferring the Buffalo shooting was a plot by the federal government.
This false and deadly ideology has metastasized via social media, and will continue to spread unless we reverse course on our approach to dangerous disinformation across public proliferation platforms.
According to NBC News, the theory that white people are deliberately being replaced “has been cited by several mass shooters since 2018, including Robert Bowers, who has been charged with killing 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in 2018; Patrick Crusius, who allegedly killed 23 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019; and John Earnest, who pleaded guilty to murdering one and injuring three others at a Poway, California, synagogue in 2019.” The volatile lie of the conspiracy theory isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s on the rise. According to an AP-NORC poll released last week, one in three U.S. adults believes there’s an ongoing effort “to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.”
This false and deadly ideology has metastasized via social media, and will continue to spread unless we reverse course on our approach to dangerous disinformation across public proliferation platforms. Understandably, much of the post-Buffalo discussion centered on solving valid issues like racial division, hate, guns, mental illness and law enforcement lapses. All these concerns present confounding challenges. Yet, in the tunnel vision that narrows our focus immediately following violent tragedies, we may have lost the context of a social media debate being where the loudest voices are trying to redefine freedom of speech as a freedom from responsibility.
There’s more to free speech than just speech that’s lawful. It is lawful to say that Jews, Hispanic people, Black people, etc. are taking over the country and that white people need to fight back, but mass killings at that Pittsburg synagogue, at that El Paso Walmart and, now, at a Buffalo supermarket, illustrate that words have the potential to kill. If Musk gets his hands on Twitter and permits that kind of speech, then it will mean those killings haven’t taught him anything.