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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. The Rising Sun

    It should be noted that the evidence is overwhelming that neither author, of the manifesto and the article, understand the lingo of pol, the style, the knowledge, the themes, the expectations, the experiences, the thoughts, the dreams, or aspirations, or fears, or disappointments either. Those with actual familiarity will attest to this. For example, the comment “every shabbat” is obviously a conspiracy theory comment, based upon the central dogma of pol, which is precisely, and overwhelmingly, and ubiquitously and seemingly perpetually and ad nauseum (complete with inclusion of the word k in the Litany Of Pol, which is “1488 / gas the k***s / race war now”), ie, that the Jews would perpetrate attacks on their day of rest, knowing they will be quite safely out of harm’s way. Enough with the ignorant author! He knows nothing. What of the manifesto author? He too isn’t a pol guy. He doesn’t mention the Jews at all, in his manifesto, or his posts. This is an utter impossibility. It’s in fact baffling, explain this to us, reader, for the most popular conspiracy theory relating to Hispanics, and one which is posted to all threads relating to Hispanics, regards the Jewish organization HIAS, and their involvement in humanitarian work that the conspiracy theory posits moves beyond provision of aid, to transportation by allegedly Star of David -marked trucks, and some say also legal strategies (such as false asylum claims and the use of children as mules (a theory which intersects with the ever worsening Epstein scandal, which is connected with none other than Ehud Barack (by his own admission)), how is it that the Jews just slipped the mind of the author of the manifesto, allegedly radicalized on pol; what brought him to omit the central dogma of pol? Those familiar with pol style and culture know that for conversation to ensue, style and lingo must conform, knowing this, we see someone who isn’t someone who communicated on pol. And, since we know he didn’t communicate on pol, we are left utterly bewildered: why did he post THERE and not, say, on Twitter, which he seems to actually use? AND also baffling, how was he aware that pdfs were supported, and how to, under pressure, submit it? Now everything becomes entirely too strange. Someone who is a non-participant, we have established, is so out of place there, yet effectively implicates it? He knows how to post, quickly, but doesn’t know the lingo or anything else about pol? Reader, can you resolve the riddle?

    Reply
    • anon

      So… you think that somebody heard about the shooting… and wrote a 4 page manifesto, established an online presence, made some comments, attached the 4 pages.. all within ‘minutes’ of when the shooting started. Typical dumb as corn statement from someone who ‘knows the lingo’. The shooting didn’t even make the news until what… 5, 10 minutes after it started? So someone heard about that and quickly wrote 4 pages, put the guys NAME in it, and then managed to post it BEFORE the shooting happened? This just illustrates how stupid you all are to believe in NONSENSE. Do you also believe in 100 virgins in heaven.. oh wait, sorry that’s the wrong far-right ideology.. wrong country, (same general principles though.. just different color, different god, same old tired medieval crap though)

      Reply
  2. FckShtSkins

    Now 8chan is down we’ll all have to find something else that do to enjoy ourselves : >
    With no cyber fun we’ll have to leave our homes and find something to do in the real world : >

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    this is a really long roundabout way to say the jews did it but perhaps the same could be said of all /pol/

    good job buddy you cracked the case now that (((((they))))) ‘won’ and 8chan got shut down I bet there wont be any more ‘fake’ shootings

    I guess he really was /yourguy/

    Reply
  4. Fogdog

    Radicalized on YouTube/Reddit and lurked on 8chan. I think this guy is pretty meek and this was a culmination of years of stewing. His Twitter name is @outsider609. He’s probably extremely anti-social and might rarely communicate online even with other bigots, preferring just to lurk and talk to himself instead. I guess these things based on my personal experiences I’ve had online and with “The Pipeline”

    Reply
    • The Rising Sun

      Honestly, forget all that. It’s valid, but check this out. Why does the manifesto say:
      “Continued immigration will make one of the biggest issues of our time, automation, so much worse.”
      so, the biggest ISSUE is automation… but later we read:
      “So Automation is a good thing as it will eliminate the need for new migrants to fill unskilled jobs. Jobs that Americans can’t survive on anyway.”
      so which is it? the biggest issue made worse by immigration, or the solution to immigration?

      and now what about this gem?
      “America can only be destroyed from the inside-out. If our country falls, it will be the fault of traitors.”
      the fault of traitors, automation, or immigrants?

      and why is he fretting over whether or not he has imperialist motives?
      “Because this isn’t an act of imperialism but an act of preservation.”
      who on the right worries about being imperialistic?

      “People who are hypocrites because they support imperialistic wars that have caused the loss of tens of thousands of American lives and untold numbers of civilian lives.”
      the view of pol is that American soldiers go to die for Israel. no lurker he! and why does he care about the lives of non-whites?

      well, we all need a laugh now and again in tragic, fractured, and stressful times, have a look at this quote:
      “If I’m captured, it will be because I was subdued somehow.”
      Our supposedly time pressed manifesto author seems to be padding his (???) essay.

      and now prepare to be perplexed all the more!!!
      “But the idea of deporting or murdering all non-white Americans is horrific. Many have been here at least as long as the whites, and have done as much to build our country.”
      four sentences later:
      “If I’m not killed by the police, then I’ll probably be gunned down by one of the invaders.”
      our author is unusually conflicted. he considers what he’s going to do to be “horrific”. now that’s extremely strange. why is he crediting “invaders” with building the nation? literal what??! and…
      “Of course these migrants and their children have contributed to the problem, but are not the sole cause of it.”
      migrants or invaders?

      sorry, one last baffler: he says “Our European comrades”, and never says “brothers”, in the manifesto, but in the post he says “brothers”.
      comrades. that’s a strange word for a right-winger to use!

      oops, one more, and this should be the most baffling of them all, how our author signs off:
      “I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”
      no mention of Timothy McVeigh? No Poway shooter?

      lifestyle, means, The Lorax, comrades, automation, imperialism, victims of war, American Indians (he’s out the gate talking about that one), pollution (apparently literal pollution of the environment), ak47, corporations destroying the environment, student debt, universal healthcare, universal income (as inevitable), Hispanic (no mention of Mexico, and no epithets).

      just who is our manifesto author?

      Reply
      • Grawlix the Grizzly

        Y’know, I think you know exactly who he is. All your comments on here tell me you’re a cat of similar stripes, and all you’re doing here is (at best) taking his words at face value or (at worst), playing the same song and hoping no-one catches a tune.

        If we accept the possibility of him being sympathetic to the Christchurch shooter then it might be worth recalling the sheer amount of “irony” peppered throughout that text. To me it seems he’s likely presenting these contradictory views in order to cast a smokescreen of sorts, something which (on the face of it) would appear to be gobbledygook so that all the press -skimming the details before the next big scoop- will just absorb it at a face level and spit it back up to the public as such.

        So, to me, this leaves a bigger mystery. Why would you, someone so clearly invested in reading between the lines, not catch on? Why, when it’s so clearly packed to the brim with doublethink?

        To me the conclusion seems clear. Returning to my first statement, you either likely disagree with his methods but agree with the cause and are faking sincerity to downplay the issue, or you’re a fellow traveler in every respect and this all part of the game plan. That or, you are actually sincere, in which case your analysis is pretty flawed, and I’d work on that a little more.

        Sorry if this comes off a tad aggressive.

        Reply
        • The Rising Sun

          i don’t know who wrote the manifesto. i don’t have any understanding of the psychology of the guy. he’s not identifiable, he’s not comprehensible. i’m disappointed in your reply, because you address none of my points. i prefer rigorous discussion.

          his text isn’t employing chan irony. if it’s a type of literary irony, what kind? and if so, what purpose would that have?

          the press hasn’t considered it incomprehensible. they have considered it straight forward white supremacy.
          CNN: “The document is filled with white nationalist and racist hatred toward immigrants and Hispanics”
          (i think they mean hate as in content, not emotion, because the manifesto is emotionless)
          MSNBC: “NBC News reporter Ben Collins discusses a manifesto posted on 8chan, allegedly tied to the El Paso gunman, which included racist, anti-immigrant sentiments”

          i think the idea for the left (and right, obviously adjusted for the rightwing perspective) is that one transgression is proof enough of the indwelling of the nazi demon or patriarchy. but those are nonexistent entities. it works for propaganda (“he’s one of THEM!”), but it tells one nothing about the actual truth of the matter.

          by the way, i appreciate aggression, when it’s focused well, but when it’s focused on shutting down analysis i must dispose upon the party maximal disdain.

          Reply
      • anon

        So you expect someone… someone that just shot people who were on their knees begging not to be killed… you expect that person’s manifesto to be logical?

        Reply
        • The Rising Sun

          1. Let us assume a person N who is conflicted respecting X can neither act in favor of nor against X
          2. Let us assume we find out person N acted with respect to X (whether in favor of or against is immaterial, it would be, however, one or the other)

          what do we know about person N, given these two assumptions?

          Reply
  5. Tracey Thakore

    To work in the United States of America, a non American would not only need documentation and a Visa, but would have to prove the job could NOT be done by anybody else in the country. Visas give the holder the right to employment but men dominate the workforce. Europe and Great Britain believe in freedom of travel and the right to live where ever they choose. It’s called the Commonwealth. A common thread of the European Union is the right to live and work and contribute to society. Is Great Britain “great?” due to the benefit system.

    Reply
  6. ActualHuman

    This is the best article I have seen exposing the fantasy world of these douchebags. I don’t know what happened to these people, maybe their daddy visited them at night, maybe their mommy didn’t hug them enough, or maybe they are just stupid f-krs whatever the explanation, the real task at hand is to find these dumb as cattle sociopaths who claim to be part of some grand vision to make the world better and exterminate them before they hurt any more actual humans. Signed: Libertarian, white guy who doesn’t hate other humans because they have different culture and pigmentation.

    Reply
    • Another Human

      Very nicely put ! We need more like minded people in this world spreading love for each other instead of hate !

      Reply
    • The Rising Sun

      To the contrary, it merely panders to the ignorant boomer masses, who, admittedly, click on the ads and buy the chinese junk, so it’s inevitable, but see my comments if you prefer to know the truth concerning the mysterious manifesto. They are on page 10 of the comments. You won’t, I just know it. is there anything so intellectually cowardly as the boomer-millennial black holes of infinite ignorance merging?

      Reply
    • rdm

      Spoken like a true clueless boomer. Maybe you are the one living in fantasy world, wearing those rose-tinted glasses, not noticing what’s actually happening around you, Pollyanna.

      Reply
  7. Tracey Thakore

    Micheal Medved argued quite famously in his book that games do not a criminal make.
    Do you buy your child a toy water pistol? Do you buy your child a plastic sword relating to a film they watched at the local cinema? Do you encourage your children to run around “shooting” each other with water guns?
    The need to fit in to society is what growing up is all about.
    The idea of “nature versus nurture,” allows the environmental influences to shape a child’s growth with the parental guidance of the figures that bring them up shaping their outlook.
    With a society dominated by the need to reaffirm one’s status in society with the almost diary like aspect of “Facebook,” the need to almost groom yourself to reflect what you want others to see, is creating a nation of individuals wrapped in their own self worth.
    Films and the media and general are reflective of the times in which we live, and portray stereotypes recognisable to the wider audience.
    Why let a developing child consume images that he or she does not understand whilst creating a feeling that the inner child feels that they don’t belong?

    Reply
  8. another anon

    >What we see here is evidence of the only real innovation 8chan has brought to global terrorism: the gamification of mass violence.

    No, what we see here is your own generalisation about a website. Some anon posting a certain macro doesn’t imply everyone supports it or has understood that macro. You’re ascribing intent to a whole site, instead of correctly ascribing intent to that person who posted.

    Logical and moral fallacy on your part, which has real consequences. And shoddy, sensationalistic commentary, meant to attract views based on “gamification of X” buzzwords.

    Reply
  9. Tracey Thakore

    Regarding the post above from “another anon,” if you had anything of value to say you would of left your name in print for those of us interested in it to see.
    Anon is usually used by those wishing to contribute to a discussion without a fear of a reprisal.
    On reading the article written by Robert Evans, the writer quite clearly states that the post would require the “the poster to know the suspect’s name well ahead of time.”
    The writer of the article says the post was made before any public report of a shooting.
    So what exactly is innovative about 8chan and what exactly has it brought to global terrorism?
    The idea of a terrorist remains the same whether they are a lone terrorist acting on the premeditated notion that maybe they will die in “the line of fire,” or whether they are part of a larger more complex set of ideals where the fight for the belief in one’s religion override their place in modern society.
    Your comment appears as a summary of an article you have read with virtually no understanding of the comments posted on the website Bellingcat.
    I mean, what is your point?

    Reply

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