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Buffalo shooting highlights threat of online extremism amid pandemic

In the early months of the pandemic, security experts sounded the alarm over the possible escalation of online radicalization and terrorist violence as people isolated themselves and spent more time on social media. .

An internal Department of Homeland Security memo in early 2020 warned that the new pandemic way of life could “increase the vulnerability of some citizens to mobilize against violence.” the The UN warned in a November 2020 report on instances of the “malicious” use of social media to foment extremist beliefs.

The suspect behind a Saturday attack at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York – which left 10 people dead, all black, and three others injured – appears to have published a piece of writing that embodies those fears. In a 180-page document, 18-year-old Payton Gendron reportedly shared a litany of bigoted views and conspiracy theories. A theory he espoused — the “replacement theory” — holds that Democrats are trying to bring about demographic change to consolidate power.

Gendron pleaded not guilty to charges of first degree murder.

The tragedy highlights the threat posed by radicalization online, several experts told ABC, pointing to a toxic mix of circumstances brought about by the pandemic: widespread social isolation, increased use of social media and the spread of conspiracy theories. Additionally, the prevalence of extremism on the internet has exposed the shortcomings of social media platforms when it comes to policing content, experts said.

The past two calendar years are the highest on record for terror plots and domestic attacks dating back to at least 1994, the first year for which the Center for Strategic and International Studies collected such data, said the think tank based in Washington DC in a recent report.

The notion of radicalization can be difficult to pin down because definitions vary, Deana Rohlinger, a professor at Florida State University who studies media and social movements, told ABC News. She defined the term as a process of interacting with individuals, groups, or pieces of content that engender pure or extremist opinions.

She defines extremist views as those that are “fundamentally opposed to the status quo.” In the United States, that would include opposition to the democratic welfare state or tolerance of diverse ideas, she said. A key part of the definition includes considering or willing to commit acts of violence to advance one’s point of view, she added.

Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks misinformation and extremism on the internet, told ABC News that the alleged shooter “shows so many signs of people who have engaged in conspiracies and extremist spaces over the past two years,” citing information about what the alleged shooter said in a 180-page document.

O’Connor and Rohlinger cited evidence suggesting an increase in online radicalization during the pandemic. However, one expert questioned whether there has been an increase in radicalization online.

Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who focuses on far-right extremism online, said research on the trend is “mixed”, noting her own work, which found a decline in traffic to some far-right websites during the pandemic that belies the supposed increase in such content elsewhere online.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a staunch defender of free speech, criticizes the term “radicalization”, arguing that the theory that extremist beliefs lead to violence is “unscientific” and ends up limiting opinions protected by the Constitution.

As coronavirus cases and deaths rose early in the pandemic, the scientific community could not definitively explain the origins of the disease or how to stop its spread.

“It was a very complex time with no clear answers, no clear solutions,” O’Connor said. “A lot of extremists have been very successful in coming up with solutions and someone to blame – they’ve found a lot of people.”

Abandoned inside, millions sought information and community on social media, Rohlinger said.

“Everyone’s world has become even smaller and less connected in the way humans dream of it,” she said.

“We don’t always find the best communities to engage in,” she added.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories have emerged in posts on major social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Membership in Facebook groups devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory increased by 120% in March 2020, and engagement rates in these groups increased by 91% that month, a study of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found.

Facebook announced a ban on QAnon pages in October 2020. The company pointed ABC News to a blog post That said, as of September 2021, the company has removed approximately 3,900 Pages, 11,300 Groups, 640 Events, 50,300 Facebook Profiles, and 32,500 Instagram Accounts for violating its policy against QAnon.

The company also deleted about 4,000 pages, 20,600 groups, 190 events, 54,900 Facebook profiles and 8,300 Instagram accounts linked to militarized social movements, according to the blog.

Extremist views have also circulated on lesser-known sites like 4chan, an anonymous picture board site known for popping up hateful content. Gendron wrote that he visited 4chan during the pandemic. 4chan did not respond to a request for comment.

Discord, another social media site used by the suspected shooter in Buffalo, has grown in popularity during the pandemic. The site is popular with teens and has been accused of spreading conspiracy theories.

“We send our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. Hate and violence have no place on Discord. We are doing everything we can to assist law enforcement with the investigation,” a Discord spokesperson told ABC News.

A study by researchers at Northwestern University, published in September 2020, found that people who received their news from social media were more likely to believe misinformation about coronavirus conspiracies and risk factors.

Squire challenged the default acceptance of Gendron’s claim that exposure to extremist ideas on 4chan radicalized him. “Because it was a dominant narrative in the media [at the time]he may just be repeating that or following that logic put before him,” she said.

Online radicalization amid the pandemic has also drawn strength from the “mainstreaming” of extremist views among politicians and prominent public figures, Rohlinger told ABC News.

When asked by reporters on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to directly denounce the replacement theory, which several members of his party have been accused of promoting.

Asked if the eventual setback of the pandemic could lessen the threat of radicalization online, O’Connor said a reduction in time spent on the internet could have a “positive impact” on limiting exposure. to extremist ideas.

“A lot of seeds may have been planted for people,” he warned. “It’s hard to dissuade people once they’ve been exposed.”