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The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror

August 4, 2019

By Robert Evans

On August 3, 2019, at around 11am local time, initial police reports indicated that a gunman had walked into an El Paso Wal-Mart and opened fire. As of the publication of this article, at least eighteen people have died and several others have been injured. One victim was a four-month old infant. As we’ve seen with two other mass shootings this year, the killer announced the start of his rampage on 8chan’s /pol board. The poster also attached a four-page manifesto to the post, along with a document in his original post that included his name — Patrick Crusius.

Looking to an archived copy of the 8chan post, we can see that the post was made at the Unix time of 1564848920, which converts to August 3, 2019 at 4:15pm (UTC) — or, in local El Paso time (UTC-6), 10:15am, just before the first reports surfaced of a shooting in El Paso.

While all of this could technically be an extremely elaborate hoax, it would require the poster to know the suspect’s name well ahead of time. Additionally, there is the fact that the post was made before any public reports of a shooting, and even longer before the name of the suspected shooter was released to the public, and included information that matched the attack (model of weapon, targeting a heavily-Hispanic area).

This original 8chan thread was deleted almost immediately by site moderators, who by now have gotten quite experienced at pulling mass shooting threads from their website. The archived version of the post has only three responses. The first is an anon claiming that 8chan is a “board of peace” which does not condone violence. This phrasing is a meme among the anons; a mocking reference to statements that Islam is a “religion of peace”. The next poster after that said simply, “Every shabbat”, expressing his hope that mass shootings like this happen every weekend. 

While this original thread was removed quite quickly, other anons have continued to post copies of the shooter’s post and links to his manifesto. I found this post roughly two hours after the shootings:

This poster and several others lambasted the shooter for his “shitty” and “0 effort manifesto”. There is nothing new in this killer’s ramblings. He expresses fears of the same “replacement” of white people that motivated the Christchurch shooter, and notes that he was deeply motivated by that shooter’s manifesto. In the article I wrote after the Poway Synagogue shooting I noted that 8channers had dedicated a great deal of time to spreading that manifesto, in an effort to inspire more shooters. The El Paso shooting is further proof that this strategy works. 

A number of social media profiles for the arrested shooter have been found on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. These profiles are consistent with one another, and align with details that police have released about the shooter. His Twitter profile, left fallow since April 2017, suggests that at that time he projected the image of a relatively normal Trump-supporting Republican.

The El Paso shooter’s manifesto and 8chan post show his radicalization and turn towards white suprematism, the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, and the video of his massacre, likely acting as major influences in his eventual attack. The most important takeaways from the El Paso shooting are twofold:

  1. 8chan’s /pol board continues to deliberately radicalize mass shooters.
  2. The act of massacring innocents has been gamified.

This second point is illustrated clearly by some of the comments I found online in the wake of this shooting. In this discussion thread, after one anon posts screenshots of the El Paso shooter’s thread, another asks, “Is nobody going to check these incredible digits?” This statement is likely a reference to the shooter’s substantial body count. [Update: Or, also possible, a reference to the repeating “14” in a post ID, referencing the 14 words, or more benignly, “dubs” of repeating digits on post IDs]

If you have not spent hours upon hours reading /pol, that statement might not be particularly legible, but within the context of months of posting the meaning is clear. Ever since the Christchurch shooting spree, 8chan users have commented regularly on Brenton Tarrant’s high bodycount, and made references to their desire to “beat his high score”. For example, this image macro was passed around rather regularly in the months after the shooting:

The image title was “beatmyscore.png”.

What we see here is evidence of the only real innovation 8chan has brought to global terrorism: the gamification of mass violence. We see this not just in the references to “high scores”, but in the very way the Christchurch shooting was carried out. Brenton Tarrant livestreamed his massacre from a helmet cam in a way that made the shooting look almost exactly like a First Person Shooter video game. This was a conscious choice, as was his decision to pick a sound-track for the spree that would entertain and inspire his viewers.

The Poway Synagogue shooter attempted to copy Tarrant in both these tactics, posting a musical playlist along with his shooting. At this point it is unknown as to whether or not the El Paso shooter attempted to livestream his massacre, but posts like this on 8chan suggest that anons tried to claim the shooter as “ourguy” and tried to brigade live chats of news coverage of the event (the YouTube link was for live coverage of the shooting). 

Here, some anons reference to the shooter as “ourguy”, despite the fact that later in the thread other anons attempt to spread claims that the shooter’s manifesto was a fake. Immediately below that is yet another reposting of the El Paso shooter’s manifesto.

Due to the “unique” tenor of conversations on /pol and the density of absurd memes 8chan is known for, observers might be compelled to view what’s happened here as more unique and novel than it truly is. The three 8chan massacres do represent an evolution in far-right violence, but they are very much tied to a decades-long tradition of murder. We can see this even in the obsession with “high scores”.

On April 19, 1995, right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Four years later, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen of their classmates in Columbine High School in Colorado. Prior to masterminding the attack Eric Harris wrote constantly of his dedication to Hitler and Nazi ideology. Dave Cullen, a journalist who studied the attacks and combed through Harris’s journals, noted that the young killer was also obsessed with Timothy McVeigh. Cullen writes: 

“In his journal, Eric would brag about topping McVeigh. Oklahoma City was a one-note performance. McVeigh set his timer and walked away. He didn’t even see his spectacle unfold.”

Harris and Klebold did not beat McVeigh’s “high score” in their lifetimes. But to date the Columbine attacks have inspired at least 74 copy-cat attacks, which have killed 89 people and injured 126 more. This is the way far right terrorism works: it is foolish, bordering on suicidal, to attribute attacks like the El Paso shooting or the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting to “lone wolves”. Both shooters were radicalized in an ecosystem of right-wing terror that deliberately seeks to inspire such massacres.

The Gilroy shooter specifically referenced “Might is Right”, a white supremacist text by “Ragnar Redbeard”. PDFs of this book have been deliberately spread on 8chan and 4chan for years, and it has become even more popular in the wake of the Gilroy shooting. 

8chan’s /pol board is regularly host to threads filled with right wing extremist literature. This thread, posted fewer than two weeks after the Christchurch massacre, includes a copy of an audiobook of The Turner Diaries, a work of fascist speculative fiction that lays out how a right-wing insurgency based around seemingly random acts of terror could bring down the United States government. 

The Turner Diaries was the favorite book of Timothy McVeigh. He cited passages from it directly in the manifesto he carried with him after bombing the Murrah building.

In the wake of the Christchurch shooting I published my first Bellingcat article about 8chan. I was interviewed by numerous media agencies about the website, and I warned all of them that additional attacks would follow – every month or two – until something was done. This prediction has proven accurate. Until law enforcement, and the media, treat these shooters as part of a terrorist movement no less organized, or deadly, than ISIS or Al Qaeda, the violence will continue. There will be more killers, more gleeful celebration of body counts on 8chan, and more bloody attempts to beat the last killer’s “high score”.

Robert Evans

Robert Evans has worked as a conflict journalist in Iraq and Ukraine and reported extensively on far-right extremist groups in the United States. He's particularly interested in the ways terrorist groups recruit, radicalize and communicate through the Internet. He has a podcast on the HowStuffWorks network (https://www.behindthebastards.com) and you can contact him via revanswriter@gmail.com or Twitter: https://twitter.com/IwriteOK

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288 Comments

  1. Catotonica

    Fantastic and well-researched article. I would just point out that the post about “checking these incredible digits” is referring to the Post ID 13561414 and the “dubs” or double of 14 at the end.

    Reply
  2. Lisa Spaulding

    I can see that there is a rise in this crap. Which absolutely needs to be stopped ASAP by a White Supremacy taskforce. I can also see the flip side but I do not condone! I follow enchantment theory on twitter. Obviously these dudes are on social media a lot, they are fed ideas but those ideas get reinforced by all the anti white stuff. I legit think so. Not that I know anyone like that, my boys are well rounded. We talk about racism and the like a bit. I know this comment might get the “poor white dudes, people” stuff. The media and academia have flipped the script from point blank blaming one group to blaming another. I have no idea how they think that is going to work. For the media, I think IMO they will push race division. It makes money. Period. Chloe S Valdary on Twitter is a phenome about all this stuff.

    Reply
    • Tracy Swenson

      I lean conservative…I’ve never heard people say anything about hating Jews, killing people. How have this group got things so twisted? But if there is a radical group, right wing extremist, anti semitic has been said a lot also. We DO need a task force. I don’t get how ppl have time to think this craziness, no one notices? I don’t care what any of us disagree with..there is a peaceful solution. I do think video games have romanticizedone killing. My grandkids were getting addicted..their mom’s stopped it..& some gamers acted mean & scary. So sad..prayers for all families involved.

      Reply
  3. labman57

    Deranged Donnie tweets “Go back where you came from!”, he applauds “Send them back!” , and his white nationalist minions think “Why not just shoot them?”

    Hey Trump,
    You can support the victims by accepting responsibility for inciting violence against Hispanics and other minority groups … and then immediately resign from office.

    Reply
    • Doug Lee

      Your a dipshit. TRUMP did not do anything to cause or get blamed for this. TRUMP is for the U.S. first.All of the U.S.. white black Brown yellow and anyone else

      Reply
    • brcat3

      Hey labman57,

      You can use your brain and shut up. Blaming Trump for Obama’s inciting of hatred is pathetic. Then you can catch the next flight out of the US and leave permanently.

      Reply
  4. jean rosenfeld

    14 is a sacred number in the “alt-Right” and refers to David Lane’s “14 Words.”
    Lone wolf terrorism can exist within an “ecosystem” mediated by the Internet. The
    other name of lone wolf terrorism is “technological terrorism” for this reason.
    This terrorism is like a virus that replicates itself swiftly, a blitz type action that typifies fascist behavior.
    The speed at which such acts accelerate mimics the speed of gaming. Your point about gamification is well taken.

    Reply
  5. Papa Smurf

    As always rampant racist, white supremacists who help to motivate these terrorists animals go free on social media platforms like youtube and receive funding via patreon and other platforms.
    Shutdown this list of Racists/Eugenicist/Neo-Nazi White Supremacists and you actually may see something change.

    Stefan Molyneux
    Black Pigeon Speaks
    Faith Goldy
    Lauren Southern
    Red Ice TV (youtube)
    Milo
    Katie Hopkins
    Ben Shapiro
    Laura Loomer
    Gavin Mcinnes

    Reply
    • Luna

      Milo? Lauren Southern? Have you ever heard them speak? Really threatened by thoughts other than your beloved group think, huh?

      Reply
    • Aidan

      Ben Shapiro? Come on. You may dislike him but he is far from any sort of supremacist. Listing him here in such a context (both the subject of the article and the company) is irresponsible.

      Reply
    • Warsaaw

      That is your list of white supremacists? Are you a fucking idiot in real life or only playing one on the internet?

      Reply
    • Eagle

      Ben Shapiro? Seriously dude? how about we censor you instead? This right here is the problem with censorship, just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean they are dangerous.

      Reply
  6. 8ch.net/neutral

    https://8ch.net/personhood.html
    Not everyone on 8chan thinks like this. The reason why shooters post on the site is because we protect freedom of speech. Hateful speech is also free speech. We don’t assume that everyone who speaks hatefully about different groups is going to carry out mass murder. Most of the time, those people are roleplaying to get out the frustration of being censored in public discourse and other websites. These mass shooters are disturbed and it’s on them for taking actions they know to be wrong. Even the former owner of 8chan Hotwheels condemns what happened today.

    Reply
    • Quantum

      Until 8chan’s political board is banned, the mods here are clearly talking out of their ass

      Reply
    • Carie

      Thank you for being a voice of reason amongst those who quickly turn one person’s hatred into a them and us blame game. /pol is not about hate or violence. They are about freedom of speech that we all have as a God given right. You do not have to agree with what another has to say but you must give them the right to say how they feel. What may drive one to violent acts like this is the frustration over nazi censorship. like the Nazi book burnings Libs want to shut down peoples voice. For those that are disturbed mentally this may cause them to look for other outlets. Not unlike terrorist groups like Antifa, a group with it’s roots in WWII Nazi. First reports I heard were hateful people wanting to know how many shot were Mexican. Who cares, honestly. They are all of one race, the human race. All else is irrelavant. Prayers are sent to the victims and their families. Quit feeding the hate of one another by blaming any group or person other than the shooter and give your support for those who are suffering this day.

      Reply
      • Quantum

        8chan ‘s /pol/ is nothing more than a den of malicious white supremacists. I have spent enough time there to see that there’s no redeeming quality of this place

        Reply
      • Anonymous

        Defending the literal planning of a mass shooting as “free speech”. Calling for everyone else to not blame “any group” while having just blaming “book burning Libs”, while calling them Nazis. Then intentionally lying about the history of Antifa (and not even getting dates right). Then proceeding to claim race doesn’t matter in response to 20 people being killed because of the color of their skin.

        After that you have the audacity to request prayers for the victims and their families? That has to be one of the most despicable things I’ve seen today. Perhaps we should pray for you as God and Humanity find you disgusting and soulless. Feigning concern for victims so you can push your political views that align with those of the shooter… Have you no fucking decency?

        Reply
    • Don't call me Surely

      Whatever you need to tell yourself so you can continue providing a platform for these monsters to radicalize each other.

      Reply
  7. wolfkin

    I generally consider myself a relatively tapped in person with regard to the far right but then I read well researched and contextualized articles like this and it reminds me how much deeper the rabbit hole goes. Like not just the stuff I know, or the stuff I’ve seen rumored but even darker and deeper. I guess I’m glad you’re doing it so i don’t have to.

    Go see Hobbes and Shaw when you get a chance man it’s just a dumb action movie. Lotta fun. You’re doing great work guy make sure you get some fun in there.

    Reply
  8. Manfred

    When will they ban this cesspool of a website? Absolutely no good has come out of it

    Reply
    • readingnews

      banning the website doesnt ban the ideology. it has gotten so advanced at this point, folded beneath so many levels of irony, that if they were forced onto new forums, few would even recognize it. only they would be able to recognize each other. being able to go to their forum and watch them interact with each other is far more useful than trying to track them down in the wild. for now we know where they are and can sit and watch, shut it down and they will scatter into the wind, but the ideology would only keep growing. if this ideology is a cancer, it’s stage 4.

      Reply

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