Social media’s next moves unclear in wake of conspiracy theory-fueled killings

Brian Contreras
Los Angeles Times

The Buffalo, New York, mass shooting that claimed 10 lives Saturday was an event shaped by, and for, internet platforms, including message boards and streaming and social media sites.

Now, as the predominantly Black neighborhood that Payton Gendron allegedly targeted is left reeling, whether those platforms allow their users to promulgate the racist “great replacement theory” that appears to have motivated him has become a matter of public safety.

In the past, the major social media companies have cited a clear connection to real-world violence as an impetus for cracking down on specific categories of extremist speech. After having long allowed Holocaust denial under the banner of free speech, Facebook ultimately banned such posts in 2020 in response to rising rates of antisemitic violence. It also banned the QAnon conspiracy movement for similar reasons, saying that even QAnon content which didn’t itself call for violence could still be “tied to different forms of real world harm.”

In theory, the massacre in Buffalo could mark a similar moment of truth for the great replacement theory, which claims that white people are being “replaced” by nonwhite groups, and which Gendron referred to repeatedly in a 180-page manifesto posted online before the spree.

Path unclear: But it’s not clear that that’s how things will actually play out, given the political pressure weighing on social media companies and the embrace of similar rhetoric by some of the right’s most prominent figures.

Representatives from Twitch, Facebook and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to what specific strategies or rules they use to moderate great replacement theory content.

On most of the big social platforms, hate speech that’s directed at a specific group, as well as related threats of violence, would typically already constitute a terms of service violation, said Courtney Radsch, a fellow at UCLA’s Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. What the Buffalo shooting could do, she said, is give tech companies some latitude to more aggressively enforce those rules.

“However,” she said, “it’s going to be a very challenging situation because so much of that speech is happening in the far right; you’ve got this cover of Tucker Carlson and Fox News.”

Fear-mongering on Fox: A New York Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of Carlson’s Fox show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” identified racial replacement fear-mongering as a consistent through-line, including more than 400 episodes in which Carlson claimed that Democrats (and some Republicans) are trying to use immigration policy to change America’s demographics.

Because there’s already a perception among some conservatives that social media companies are biased against right-wing content — a notion that research refutes — cracking down on great replacement theory-related posts could put the platforms in politically dicey waters, Radsch said.

Wendy Via, co-founder and president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said that because social media platforms often treat the powerful and well-connected with kid gloves, Carlson — and other ideologically aligned politicians — “do not get moderated the way that anybody else does.”

“Great replacement content is going to proliferate out of control because the ones that are pushing it” enjoy preferential treatment, Via said.

It’s not a new problem.

Earlier incidents: After the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, that targeted multiple mosques, Facebook “took action immediately” to deprive great replacement theory advocates of a platform, including the group Generation Identity, Via said. (When Facebook’s list of “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” that can’t be praised on the platform leaked last year, several European branches of Generation Identity were on it.)

But the problem, Via said, is that such efforts happen at a drip-drip pace and play out unevenly across different social networks.

“It takes these big things to get them to take action,” she said, but even then, “they don’t go from zero to 100. They go from zero to 20 .… .

“But I do believe that they will move incrementally [now].”

The cycle: Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, was less confident.

“I’m trying not to be a pessimist, but if the past is any indication, I don’t know how successful they’re going to be, or how much effort a lot of these companies are going to put in it,” Segal said, adding that similar cycles of corporate reform played out after the Christchurch shooting as well as the 2019 El Paso shooting that targeted Latinos and the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The great replacement theory played a central role in both.

That figures as influential as Carlson are pushing the ideology behind this latest tragedy may discourage platform companies from attempting to combat its spread, but it shouldn’t, Segal said.