Before he started shooting worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 27, the alleged killer, Robert Bowers, had made his intentions crystal clear on social media.
“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Subsequent investigation showed that this was just the culmination of a series of rants in which he had given vent to the anti-Semitic hatred that motivated him.
Illustration: Louise Ting
“There is no #MAGA [Make America Great Again] as long as there is a kike [Jewish] infestation,” was a typical example.
His online profile contained the slogan “Jews are the children of Satan.”
These sentiments were expressed not on Facebook or Twitter — because not even those two spineless services would tolerate them — but on gab.com, a social media Web site set up by a “free speech” activist in the summer of 2016 after Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious “alt-right” troll, had been kicked off Twitter.
Bowers was a perfect fit for Gab, a fact confirmed by some of the comments posted by his fellow members as news of the shooting spree spread.
“I can’t wait to hear about how many lampshades the alleged synagogue shooter supposedly made out these Jews in Pittsburgh,” wrote one, for example, followed by three laughing cat emojis.
Gab briefly disappeared from the Internet because its Web-hosting service and the online payment outfits that enabled it to operate hastily abandoned it. Needless to say, that triggered the standard victimhood narrative of hate-speech amplifiers whenever they are challenged.
“We are the most censored, smeared and no-platformed startup in history, which means we are a threat to the media and to the Silicon Valley Oligarchy,” the holding page said. Cue the violins.
Anti-Semitism has a long history, but its current, alarming resurgence has clearly been facilitated by the Internet and, especially, social media.
We have known for a long time that conspiracy theories — the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the “stab in the back” theory in post-World War I Germany — act as powerful vectors for the spread of anti-Semitism. And it just so happens that network technology makes it much easier for conspiracist ideas to be propagated than was the case in the analogue world of print and broadcast media.
Combine that with the way that technology enables people to lock themselves into digital echo chambers, plus the business models of social media companies that prize the “user engagement” — and revenues — that extreme content provides, and you have the kind of perfect storm that culminates in someone going into a synagogue and murdering Jewish congregants.
The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity.
A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist Web site inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims.
On June 17, 2015, Roof joined a group of African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.
We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.”
However, then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated right-wing stories and attacking former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with images promoting US President Donald Trump, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State group, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News.
He also drove a van plastered with posters extolling Trump as a hero, pictures of prominent Democrats — who later received mail bombs — with crosshairs superimposed on them and decals railing against CNN — also a recipient of a bomb. Once again, the direction of travel is the same: from social media to conspiracy theories, to extreme partisanship to atrocity.
For many people, conspiracy theories are a cognitive device for trying to make sense of a confusing or incomprehensible reality. How come we have a global banking crisis and no bankers go to jail, for example?
Sometimes, they are a way of denying reality: The only way a black man could become US president was by faking his birth certificate. And so on.
For many years, we thought that conspiracy theories were relatively harmless: They kept the nutters off the streets. In a networked world, that reassuring theory no longer holds.
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