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The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror

Robert Evans, who first analysed the role of 8chan in online radicalisation after the Christchurch attacks, looks at how far-right terrorism ‘body counts’ have been turned into an online game.

Robert Evans, who first analysed the role of 8chan in online radicalisation after the Christchurch attacks, looks at how far-right terrorism ‘body counts’ have been turned into an online game.

On August 3, 2019, at around 11am local time, initial police reports indicated that a gunman had walked into an El Paso Walmart and opened fire. 20 people were killed and many others injured. One victim was a four-month-old baby.

As we’ve seen with two other mass shootings in the US this year, the killer announced the start of his rampage on the far-right online message board 8chan. The poster of the message also attached a four-page manifesto, along with a document that included his name – Patrick Crusius.

Looking at an archived copy of the 8chan post, we can see that it was made on 3 August 2019 at 4:15pm (UTC) – or, at local El Paso time, 10:15am – just before the first reports surfaced of a shooting in El Paso.

While all of this could technically be an extremely elaborate hoax, it would require the poster to know the suspect’s name well ahead of time. Additionally, there is the fact that the post was made before any public reports of a shooting, and even longer before the name of the suspected shooter was released to the public, and included information that matched the attack (the model of the weapon used and the targeting of a heavily-Hispanic area).

This original 8chan thread was deleted almost immediately by site moderators who, by now, are quite experienced at pulling mass shooting threads from the website. The archived version of the post has only three responses. The first is an “anon” response claiming that 8chan is a “board of peace” which does not condone violence. This phrasing is a meme among the anons – a mocking reference to statements that Islam is a “religion of peace”. The next poster after this said simply “every shabbat”, expressing his hope that mass shootings like this happen every weekend. 

While this original thread was removed quite quickly, other anons have continued to post copies of the shooter’s post and links to his manifesto. I found this post roughly two hours after the shootings:

This poster and several others lambasted the shooter for his “shitty” and “0 effort manifesto”. There is nothing new in this killer’s ramblings. He expresses fears of the same “replacement” of white people that motivated the Christchurch shooter, and notes that he was deeply motivated by that terrorist’s manifesto.

In an article I wrote after the Poway Synagogue shooting, I noted that those using 8chan had dedicated a great deal of time to spreading that manifesto, in an effort to inspire more shooters. The El Paso shooting is further proof that this strategy is working.

A number of social media profiles for the arrested El Paso shooter have been found on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. These profiles are consistent with one another and align with details that police have released about the shooter. His Twitter profile, left fallow since April 2017, suggests that he previously projected the image of a relatively normal Trump-supporting Republican.

The El Paso shooter’s manifesto and 8chan post show his radicalisation and turn towards white supremacism – the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto and the video of his massacre likely acting as major influences in his eventual attack.

The most important takeaways from the El Paso shooting are twofold: that 8chan‘s /pol board continues to deliberately radicalise mass shooters, and the act of massacring innocents has been gamified.

Ever since the Christchurch shooting spree, 8chan users have commented regularly on Brenton Tarrant’s high body count, and made references to their desire to “beat his high score”. For example, this image macro was passed around rather regularly in the months after the shooting – the title of which was “beatmyscore.png”:

What we see here is evidence of the only real innovation 8chan has brought to global terrorism: the gamification of mass violence.

We see this not just in the references to “high scores”, but in the very way the Christchurch shooting was carried out. Brenton Tarrant live streamed his massacre from a helmet cam in a way that made the shooting look almost exactly like a First Person Shooter video game. This was a conscious choice, as was his decision to pick a soundtrack for the spree that would entertain and inspire his viewers.

The Poway Synagogue shooter attempted to copy Tarrant in both these tactics, posting a musical playlist along with his shooting. At this point, it is unknown whether or not the El Paso shooter attempted to live stream his massacre, but posts such as the following on 8chan suggest that anons tried to claim the shooter as “our guy” and tried to brigade live chats of news coverage of the event (the YouTube link was for live coverage of the shooting):

Here, some anons reference the shooter as “our guy”, despite the fact that later in the thread other anons attempt to spread claims that the shooter’s manifesto was a fake. Immediately below there is yet another reposting of the El Paso shooter’s manifesto:

Due to the “unique” tenor of conversations on 8chan and the density of absurd memes it is known for, observers might be compelled to view what’s happened here as more unique and novel than it truly is. The three 8chan massacres do represent an evolution in far-right violence, but they are very much tied to a decades-long tradition of murder. We can see this even in the obsession with “high scores”.

On 19 April 1995, right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Four years later, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 of their classmates in Columbine High School in Colorado. Prior to masterminding the attack, Eric Harris wrote constantly of his dedication to Hitler and Nazi ideology. Dave Cullen, a journalist who studied the attacks and combed through Harris’s journals, noted that the young killer was also obsessed with Timothy McVeigh. 

Cullen writes: “In his journal, Eric would brag about topping McVeigh. Oklahoma City was a one-note performance. McVeigh set his timer and walked away. He didn’t even see his spectacle unfold.”

Harris and Klebold did not beat McVeigh’s “high score” in their lifetimes. But, to date, the Columbine attacks have inspired at least 74 copycat attacks, which have killed 89 people and injured 126 more.

This is the way far-right terrorism works: it is foolish, bordering on suicidal, to attribute attacks like the El Paso shooting or the Gilroy garlic festival shooting to “lone wolves”. Both shooters were radicalised in an ecosystem of right-wing terror that deliberately seeks to inspire such massacres.

The Gilroy shooter specifically referenced Might is Right, a white supremacist text by “Ragnar Redbeard”. PDFs of this book have been deliberately spread on 8chan and 4chan for years, and it has become even more popular in the wake of the Gilroy shooting. 

8chan’s /pol board is regularly host to threads filled with right-wing extremist literature. This thread, posted fewer than two weeks after the Christchurch massacre, includes a copy of an audiobook of The Turner Diaries, a work of fascist speculative fiction that lays out how a right-wing insurgency based around seemingly random acts of terror could bring down the United States government:

The Turner Diaries was the favorite book of Timothy McVeigh. He cited passages from it directly in the manifesto he carried with him after bombing the Murrah building.

In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, I wrote my first 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 organised or deadly than ISIS or Al Qaeda, the violence will continue. There will be more killers, more gleeful celebration of body counts on 8chan and more bloody attempts to beat the last killer’s “high score”.

The original version of this article was first published on Bellingcat.

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