The scenes from El Paso, Texas were horrifying. Terror reigned supreme across America as the threat of white supremacy was looking more present than ever. Mitch McConnell continued to hold legislative power hostage to partisan gridlock, and a great sum of the Republican base are so in deep denial, that they’re rushing to blame video games instead, and suggesting obscene security measures at every place of public convention.
With such a state of disarray amidst the highest ranks of American government, the public was left to build a narrative of how one of their own, suddenly became America’s worst nightmare–a gun-toting radical stripped any trace of human empathy. As these conversations happen, there’s a natural tendency to look for short answers, or come up with as simple of an explanation to fit a narrative of America’s failure to tame the beasts of white supremacy. But the unmistakable truth is, America’s woes are a combination of many different factors, and no single one is responsible for radicalizing its youth without some form of intersection with another. The motivation for killing innocent people, is about as complex as the crisis of identity a great deal of white Americans are experiencing today.
The probable causes
The centerpoint of the conversations around the killer’s motives have been all revolving around a familiar set of values expressed in a manifesto posted on 8chan. The document in question referenced familiar points the Christchurch Mosque shooter had already expressed in his own manifesto. A shared lust for blood in retribution for what they deemed to be an unduly demographic reshaping of their own respective homelands.
Many were to quick to call 8chan out, and repeated call for its closure — joined by the site’s own creator — have even pushed its network infrastructure provider Cloudflare to abandon ship. Taking it down would sure alleviate a lot of the issues present, but it still doesn’t curtail the fact that there’s no legal process to prosecute platforms if they do not adhere some set of guidelines about hatespeech. The issue is, the US has been painstakingly trying to conjure up a doctrine on hatespeech that the Supreme Court wouldn’t deem unconstitutional. Simply put, what 8chan was doing was perfectly legal up until the point it started to incur real harm, and that ignores the process through which the timidest forms of hatespeech bloom into a full-blown ethnonationalist manifesto. It’s not sudden or abrupt. It’s a process where empathy for the “other” starts to slowly erode, soon thereafter, indulging into far-right memetics ironically starts to take hold, then after that the irony turns into seriousness; and before anyone is able to do anything, the doctrine of white supremacy has turned one of its patrons into a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode and take the lives of many innocent people with it.
BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick’s read of it veered into the uncanny valley of “The problem is too big, that action would be just as useful as inaction”, and while his conclusion that 8chan’s problem stems from a systemic hatred of minorities by white America is sound, it still puts the onus of resolving the issue on individual responsibility. Radical speech thrives on perpetuity, and that perpetuity is afforded through extremist chat boards like 8chan in such a manner that exchanging the same gullible views about minorities without repercussion, tends to isolate its users ideologically that it’s impossible for them to consider anything outside the bounds of their small corner, worthy of attention or listening to. Julián Castro can rock the Democratic debate stage with deep, thoughtful analysis of the ongoing border crisis, and all would manage to seep in is a variation of “Blah blah blah, identity politics, blah blah blah”. 8chan’s greatest power isn’t that it activates deep-seated hatred of minorities auprès of white Americans, but it’s that it insulates them after such activation from seeing opposing — more humane — views as worthy of adoption. As such, were they susceptible to de-radicalization before they entered 8chan, the chances of such decontamination efforts to work are reduced dramatically. 8chan’s closure wouldn’t bring an end to white supremacy, but it would temporarily shut down one of the main ways it currently turns it into murderous outrage.
Elsewhere the attention turned to Facebook, and specifically, the nature of ads Donald Trump ran on the platform. According to Natalie Martinez, Media Matters’ resident expert on radical online speech, roughly 2,200 ads ran since May 2018 mentioning the word “invasion”–a language the El Paso shooter used to describe immigrant presence in his manifesto. This isn’t at all surprising considering Trump pushed very heavily on the narrative of an invading “caravan” prior to the American midterm elections in 2018–one which ultimately turned out to be a fabrication. Facebook’s refusal to be more proactive with what ads it serves its users — despite them blatantly violating its terms-of-service — is a valid criticism to make. However, that these ads are possible to submit without legal scrutiny is already far too big a flaw in the system. Conservatives have sullied the space for political competition by betting on their base’s overwrought ambivalence that any incentive to make sure information in political campaigns is factually correct is basically non-existent. It’s far too easy to blame white suburbia for being particularly susceptible to this sort of messaging, when the fundamental issue rather lies at an inept set of political campaign policy laws, especially in a post-Citizens United era.
Where that failure to account for malicious use of campaign finances manifests itself most is in the National Rifle Association’s involvement in the electoral process. The NRA — who’s at credible risk of losing its nonprofit status — has been the center of numerous corruption scandals. Last year, the organization has come under heavy fire after allegations of funneling Russian funds as part of its record-setting $30 million pro-Trump spending during the 2016 American presidential elections came under light. The issue then was so pressing, that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team expressed great interest in investigating the Trump campaign’s ties with the NRA during the 2016 elections. The organization was quickly and steadily losing cash after many of its corporate ties were cut following the nationwide movement for gun reform sparked by last year’s Parkland school shooting.
If it is true that the NRA is complicit in letting these tragedies go unpunished when one of its last remaining lifelines are gun-toting registered members, it is also true that Republican politicians share a great deal of the blame as they accept the NRA’s contributions, nullifying any hope of major gun reform to be voted into law. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on Mitch McConnell to end Senate recess so that an emergency vote on gun control could be held but it’s mostly fallen on deaf ears. “The Republican Senate must stop their outrageous obstruction and join the House to put an end to the horror and bloodshed that gun violence inflicts every day in America”, Nancy Pelosi echoed in a similar sentiment. But because the NRA caters primarily to Trump’s base, and because that base is the primary source of anger at an increasingly-diversifying America, it is in the GOP’s vested strategic interest to strike down any attempts at properly regulating guns, short of committing political suicide.
And since the will to maintain the status quo isn’t waning, conservative media doesn’t feel dissuaded in its mission to misinform and carry their agenda either. Right-wing ideologues like Tucker Carlos, aided by the Rupert Murdoch-funded propaganda machine that is FOX News, have successfully carved out a loyal block of the political fringe within America that will consistently co-sign their troubling assertions about immigrants and minorities in a false narrative of a struggle for finite resources. All-too-often evidence points that immigrants are a net economic benefit to the United States, and almost half of the Fortune 500 companies — to whom a great deal of economic spoils is owed— were founded by immigrants. But because conservative media serves its core audience the “blood-sucking immigrant leeches” narrative so consistently, many cozy up to it, and end up turning it into valuable political capital for the Republican party.
The power of conservative media to turn white suburbia into a tool for extremist violence doesn’t come from its innate role in the journalism space. It is rather the way it primes its most-estranged to better receive more radical forms of rhetoric–simply put, 8chan’s intoxicating pill of nationalistic fear-mongering becomes much easier to pass down after raking in hours of FOX News and Rush Limbaugh talk radio. It moves the Overton window on acceptable speech significantly, that white supremacist rhetoric pulls back a little bit closer to the center, giving it more the reputation of alternative thought rather than the lunacy it actually is.
And as far as Overton window-shifting mechanisms are concerned, YouTube has to be one of the strongest. The platform had come under major scrutiny recently when it failed to ban right-wing political pundit Steven Crowder after he’d incessantly harassed left-wing political commentator Carlos Maza with homophobic and racist abuse. This is not the first time the platform weathered criticism of its inability to enforce its rules, but its moderation woes only come secondary to its much-condemned use of an algorithm which propped conspiracy theories and far-right political voices to the top of its recommendation channels. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently blew the lid on the story of a now-reformed ex-radical whose past views were in great deal to owe from the presence of white nationalist voices like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern on the platform. In that story, the disinfectant for Caleb Cain’s descent into far-right radical speech hell was BreadTube–an insurgent movement of left-leaning political commentators resisting the spread of the alt-right’s influence on YouTube.
Though the problem all-too-often is that YouTube — if superficially an advocate for impartiality — doesn’t treat its both ends of the political discourse evenly. If leftist content is more measured and usually doesn’t fall victim to the usual trappings of virality and artificial bolstering of engagement rates, right-wing content by contrast plays on the users’ propensity for seeking sensationalist language. It could totally be the case that YouTube’s algorithm has inherited a natural conservative bias by way of its users’ input, but that if anything, highlights the importance of human intervention when AI fails its most basic function of protecting users against radical speech. “This wave of AI hype will have dire consequences. Not just for our field. For public safety.” said top AI researcher at Google’s Deep learning division François Chollet. Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos spoke about YouTube’s quasi-governmental status, saying that they’re “regulating the speech of hundreds of millions without the trappings of transparency and precedent we’ve reasonably come to expect with such power”. That YouTube has such a firm command over what types of speech it bolsters is decidedly quite a frightening prospect.
But if YouTube is such an effective conveyer of far-right extremist rhetoric, why didn’t everyone just desert it and migrate to a different platform? Well, they can’t. Google has mercilessly dodged antitrust queries into its video-sharing platform that it’s outright comical that the US Department of Justice only initiated a review of such nature in 2019–long after Google’s monopoly over online video sharing was solidified. Facebook and Twitter too seem under no credible threat of being broken up by the Jeff Sessions-staffed DOJ. If there was any hope of creators deserting a platform whose political discourse thrives on far-right radical speech, it is long gone by now. The situation was certainly unaided by Trump’s catastrophic social media summit whose attendees list includes the very nefarious actors much of social media’s current woes are attributed to.
The chronology of white supremacy in America is a failure to account for all its causes. It’s a distinct complicity that — especially Republican — lawmakers have made peace with, and are unwilling to reckon with as the whole nation looks up to them for guidance. It is in such times that an often erroneous notion of “unity” is called to–but the only unity deserving of pursuit at this current stage is a willingness to throw any elected official who doesn’t take the threat of gun violence and white supremacy out of office. This is not the time to duly contemplate the consequences, nor deeply ponder the circumstances. The causes are known, and the antidote is readily available–administer at once, or let America die with ethnonationalist toxins filling its veins.
The convergence of spheres
The media, whose clarity is most-sought in times of great confusion, just kept asking the usual questions. “Is there anything in your mind that the president can do now to make this any better?” a reporter asked 2020 Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke. Beto had to make it clear what the proper parameters of the discussion are. “He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country” he firmly rebuked.
But Trump’s racist rhetoric is only a single piece of the puzzle. The history that has permitted white supremacy to permeate the modern political discourse dates back to America’s very own roots. If unable to deal with its dark past with minorities and those who once it deemed ungraceful enough to live within its borders, lessons unlearned are about to come knocking back. There’s no escaping the fundamental fact that white America, has become the greatest menace to its own.
To make sense of why a young white man, would exhibit monstrous inhumane behavior, we have to look at all the interlocking pieces in the modern American context that were complicit, have permitted, and in some cases even willfully aided America’s most violent political fringes.
There’s no single answer to America’s problems. They come from a tap we all know and are fairly familiar with–white supremacy. But the mechanisms through which this ideology’s legitimization spreads, spans the entire construct of modern American society. From its inability to account for unlawful campaign finance contributions, to major platform holders’ failure to fix many of the problems inherent to their design, to hatespeech laws being fallaciously pinned against the First Amendment, to Trump’s use of incendiary language about immigrants and minorities, his reticence to address the crisis at the border, to conservative media holding the rest of the journalism space hostage to its progress-vilifying framing traps, right through individuals’ own agency to just not pick up a gun and rain hellfire upon innocent people –the issue of a rising tide in violent white supremacy across America is deeply interwoven into the fracturing sociopolitical fabric of America, and its any components cannot independently exert influence without an intersection of cause and effect. If only one is remedied, and the others are left unchecked, they’ll quickly rise to the challenge and foot the bill of an absentee. It is after systemic change — and only that — that America can finally breathe sigh of relief, not having to worry about the fate of its worshippers, school attendees, and normal public life-participating individuals to fall victim to its government’s ineptitude in addressing the threat of a conflict-lustful, trigger-happy, impossible-to-satisfy white supremacy.