When Shootings Become Dangerous Speech

On August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old white man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and began shooting. He killed 20 and injured dozens more. Minutes before the shooting, the man allegedly uploaded a document to 8chan, outlining his stated motivations and plans for the attack.

In the days since the shooting, a tremendous amount of press has been devoted to the manner in which the manifesto echoes statements made by Donald Trump and other white supremacists. These conversations are important. But they only capture half of the relationship between speech and mass shootings. Individuals who carry out attacks such as the one in El Paso are not only audience members who have heard Dangerous Speech and have been convinced to commit violence. They are also speakers themselves. Their words (through manifestos and social media posts) and their actions (the shootings) are performances designed, at least in part, to move others to commit similar atrocities in the future.

In several recent cases, shooters have explicitly acknowledged their relationship with other past shootings. The first line of the El Paso manifesto states the shooter’s support for the man who killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Three months earlier, a shooter who attacked a synagogue in Poway, CA, made reference to two previous massacres in a document also posted on 8chan: the Christchurch killings and the October 2018 mass-shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Similarly, in his 74-page manifesto, the Christchurch attacker wrote that he had drawn inspiration from an American white supremacist who murdered nine inside a church in Charleston, SC in 2015 and a Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in Oslo, Norway in 2011.

There is not a formalized relationship between the killers involved in the identity-based attacks that have occurred over the past few years. And yet, killers have intentionally tried to link themselves with each other ― framing their actions as being part of an emerging supremacist movement of which they are leaders. “I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction,” wrote the El Paso shooter. The Christchurch shooter similarly stated that “lighting a path forward for those that wish to follow” was one of the goals of the massacre. Writing a “manifesto” becomes part of hopefully gaining this influence. The El Paso shooter, for example, stated that even though he didn’t spend much time planning the attack, he knew that writing a “meh manifesto” was better than not writing one at all.

But the manifesto is not the only Dangerous Speech associated with these shootings. At the Dangerous Speech Project, we define Dangerous Speech as any form of expression that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of another group. When one thinks of speech that could persuade someone to support violence, one likely imagines spoken or written text or perhaps images. But these recent mass shootings suggest that we should think of this category even more broadly. The shootings themselves can become performative expressions, designed not only to terrorize, but to inspire the shooter’s supporters.

The Christchurch shooter live-streamed his massacre, even planning a soundtrack to accompany it. Minutes before the attack, he shared the link for the stream on 8chan. The Poway shooter followed a similar script ― attempting to livestream the attack and sharing an accompanying playlist on 8chan. Choreographing and broadcasting (or attempted broadcasting) the killings are evidence of the shooters’ awareness of their audience and the manner in which they see these attacks as performances.

Even when they are not explicitly orchestrated as performances, preliminary research suggests that mass shootings can still have an impact on the activities of extremist groups. Neil Johnson, a physicist from George Washington University, along with a team of researchers, documented that after the Parkland shooting in 2018, as (false) rumors swirled online of a connection between the KKK and the shooter, previously unassociated online groups associated with the KKK began linking to one another. It is unclear exactly why they did this, but the violent incidents clearly served as a motivating force, knitting smaller extremist groups together.

After mass shootings, reports have tended to analyze the shooter’s social media posts, looking for clues of the shooters’ motivations and how their past brought them to this point. But we must not see their actions as simply an endpoint. Instead, we should also view their actions and writings as the performances of aspirational dangerous speakers, people who wish to incite others to violent action. Their words may be echoes, but those echoes do not stop here. Instead they combine with performative violence and continue to reverberate, amplified on social media, potentially reaching new audiences.

We shouldn’t imagine that it’s possible to completely remove this kind of content from the internet. Taking it down from well-known sites will prevent some people who might be swayed by the content from seeing it, but it will inevitably still be available on smaller sites where extremists gather. Therefore we must be realistic in our expectations that this type of speech will continue to spread and work to develop new ways to counter its violence-inciting potential.


Cover photo: (CC BY-NC 2.0) www.imageabstraction.com