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The ‘gamification’ of domestic terrorism online

Hate-filled online posts or “manifestos” have often been purposely left behind by shooters for the public and authorities to find. New York Times opinion writer-at-large Charlie Warzel, who covers information technology, joins to hari Sreenivasan to discuss the ‘gamification’ and radicalization of white supremacy on online forums.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The shooters behind these events often leave so-called "manifestos" — hate filled online postings they want the public and authorities to find. We've seen it after the shooting in Christchurch, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and power in California and even yesterday in El Paso Texas. They appear on well-known forums and spread rapidly in the aftermath of the murders.

    New York Times opinion writer-at-large Charlie Warzel covers information technology and he joins us now via Skype from Missoula, Montana.

    Is this kind of the new thing that they have to do to have legitimacy in the communities that they spring from?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Well it certainly seems that since Christchurch, there's been a noticeable uptick and a noticeable sort of parroting and sort of one up game of one upmanship that is happening in this community especially in 8chan. It is a group of white nationalists, much of their commentary was previously a very trollish in sort of dealing with you know dark irony, sort of unclear what was them trying to rile each other up and how much was actually real and obviously what we've seen is that there are a number of people who are very vulnerable to all of this goading and persuasion and constant talking about violent extremism. And it seems like it's jumping off of the internet and into real life with greater frequency.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how is that radicalization happening in these forums?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    So you know when I go into some of these communities and look at them, oftentimes it's just a in a mass of information it's sort of coasted randomly. There's no real organization to it. It's all anonymous. You have no idea really who is posting what sometimes people are are posting and then commenting to themselves as somebody else.

    So it's very difficult to get any sense of what these communities are but really in the past two years there's just been a dialing up of the rhetoric. This is sort of alongside what we're seeing in the country with the immigration debate but we're seeing with Donald Trump's racist comments. What we're seeing with just the sort of intensifying and toxicity of American politics and these forums are getting more and more intense.

    The real moment that sort of seemed to change things in these forums was the Christchurch shooting back in March. And after that these communities really sort of focused on on terrorism, on planning these sorts of things. I went to to 8chan on a random day in May this year and the first thing that I saw at the top was a detailed post from an anonymous user about the best ways to stage a mass shooting. The ways to go for you know the the maximum amount of kills, the maximum amount of kills of people of a specific ideology. It was a a post that was essentially a handbook or for terrorism.

    And that is something that is a departure from just say a year and a half two years ago. There were lots of racist posts, there were threats, there were campaigns to go and harass people, women, people of color.

    There was a lot of awful toxicity but there's been a shift now into this idea of actual violence in the community spaces and inciting that violence in a way that there's nothing else you can call it other than terrorism.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there a possibility that the note left by the El Paso shooter ends up, well for lack of a better word triggering or inspiring the person that did this in Dayton last night?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    I don't know what the connection is right now. It's early to tell in terms of connecting El Paso with Dayton. I do think the more that these happen, the more that people see that this rhetoric moves from the Internet into real life, the more people are going to be emboldened. What is most concerning about these three shootings Christchurch, Poway and El Paso now being connected to this message board 8chan is the is the notion that there is this community is game of fighting terrorism and violence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Explain that. So what does it what does it mean that there is a gamification going on on these boards?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    So in these communities after Christchurch there was a a whole bunch of outpouring of people saying you know this shooter got a high number of kills. Basically, you know something like in a video game. They got a high score in 8chan, people started referring to this as the high score who can top the high score. And so now when these acts of violence happen, people on these message boards are essentially just waiting to see whether or not they've beaten the last act of terrorism, whether or not they've gotten a high score. And there's you know there's glorifying those who do, there's chastising those who don't, you know calling them losers.

    It's really and truly become this, there's another way say this gamification. And it is it's not influenced there's a lot of talk right now about you know video games being to blame. It's not influenced by people who are who are gaming. This is white nationalism. This is terrorism. But there is a gamified element to it. There is this notion that that you can you can go out and basically play to win some grim sick about it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally I want to ask. I mean this is borders on a First Amendment question but there are companies that host these forums that they make money off of these forums. Why does the marketplace not correct for that? Is there no way to disincentivize the creation of spaces where this kind of hate can fester?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    This is a really, really difficult problem clearly. CloudFlare, which is one of the companies that hosts a lot of these web sites and provides the infrastructure to allow them to run and prevent them from being sort of attacked by individuals and taken down, they have taken action before after Charlottesville. The white supremacist neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer was taken down from being hosted by CloudFlare. That doesn't seem to be the case.

    CloudFlare has said as recently as last night that they're not going to take action against and despite this link and they are just sort of a they're like the FedEx of the Internet. They deliver packages, they deliver information they don't open it up and look at it. And this is really difficult because I think there's a real moral question that these companies need to to weigh. But at the same time these communities are very resilient. They have been kicked off.

    8chan was really popularized by another website 4chan moderating some of the worst behavior off that platform. They then went to 8chan. It's difficult to know if de-listing, unhosting some terrible website wouldn't just have those people move elsewhere. It's a very difficult problem and of course you have to have speech issues.

    But but I think, I think we need to have a very broad conversation that includes the government that includes the law enforcement about what to do with a community that is essentially — and technology companies — that is essentially a incubator for terrorism and as as a one of my peers at NBC said this website has a body count associated with it and I think we really need to recognize that and treat it as an emergency.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Charlie Warzel of The New York Times joining us via Skype from Missoula, Montana today. Thanks so much.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Thanks a lot.

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