Discord, Twitch, 4Chan and more to be investigated in wake of Buffalo terror attack

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New York attorney general Letitia James has announced her office is launching investigations into various online platforms and social media companies, following the May 14 terror attack in Buffalo that claimed 10 lives and wounded three people. The suspect, a heavily-armed white supremacist, livestreamed the murders on Twitch and partly planned the attack on a private Discord server.

During the attack, Twitch became aware of the livestream and removed it within two minutes of it going live. “The user has been indefinitely suspended from our service, and we are taking all appropriate action, including monitoring for any accounts rebroadcasting this content,” Twitch said at the time. Discord said it is cooperating with law enforcement investigating the shooter’s use of the platform, but would not comment further.

Shortly after the attack, New York governor Kathy Hochul demanded that social media platforms do more to prevent these streams from being shared. “There’s a feeding frenzy on social media platforms where hate festers more hate, that has to stop,” Hochul said during a briefing. “These outlets must be more vigilant in monitoring social media content. And certainly the fact that this act of barbarism, this execution of innocent human beings, could be live streamed on social media platforms and not taken down within a second, says to me that there is a responsibility out there.

“We’re going to continue to work on this and make sure that those who provide these platforms have a moral and ethical, and I hope to have a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate cannot populate these sites, because this is the result.”

The NY attorney general’s investigations will “look into the social media companies and other online resources that the shooter used to discuss and amplify his intentions and acts to carry out this attack.” The investigations will focus on platforms used to stream, promote or plan the event, and include but are not limited to: Twitch, 4chan, 8chan, and Discord.

It is also likely at some stage to look at Roblox, which is not mentioned in the announcement, but was referenced multiple times by the shooter.

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“The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate,” said attorney general Letitia James. “The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable. As we continue to mourn and honor the lives that were stolen, we are taking serious action to investigate these companies for their roles in this attack. Time and time again, we have seen the real-world devastation that is borne of these dangerous and hateful platforms, and we are doing everything in our power to shine a spotlight on this alarming behavior and take action to ensure it never happens again.”

The AG’s office says that the shooter had been posting online for months about his beliefs and even discussed plans to attack various other locations which he believed would have a sizeable community of black people. The posts include information about his plans to carry out the Buffalo attack, and accounts of visits he made to the site prior to the murders. The AG’s statement also says that the shooter “streamed the attack on another social media platform, which was accessible to the public” though it is unclear whether this refers to Twitch or another yet-unnamed streaming platform.

This is not the first time that a premeditated hate crime has involved a plan to stream the attack. A 2019 attack on a synagogue in Germany, in which two people were killed, was broadcast on Twitch, and attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 people were murdered, were livestreamed on Facebook. The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto says he was inspired by the Christchurch attacker’s livestream, which he found on 4chan, and introduced him to various racist conspiracy theories.

So one of the first questions may well be: why hasn’t this kind of investigation happened until now? While those of us in the gaming industry are used to ignoring the more shrill claims made about the hobby by the likes of Fox News, it seems undeniable that gaming adjacent platforms played some role in the radicalisation of this shooter. Indeed, this attack comes in the wake of previous public reporting on fascist groups in Roblox.

The investigations follow a referral from NY governor Hochul, and will have extensive powers. In the course of the investigations the attorney general’s office can subpoena witnesses and compel the companies involved to produce any documentation required. Discord and Twitch are prominent public-facing companies and so complete co-operation is to be expected, but what happens with the chan sites may be interesting.

That said, it is unclear what the NY authorities are hoping to uncover here. A chat service like Discord being used for evil purposes seems like a human problem rather than a technology problem (Discord once went on a spree of banning white supremacist servers following criticism), while Twitch’s response in this case was swift. Sadly this feels like a problem these platforms, and the authorities, will be grappling with for a long time to come.

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