Ciaran O'Connor: Why do white men become radicalised by conspiracy theories?

There is not one easy, neat explanation for why someone becomes radicalised, though often a person’s perceived loss of status or a feeling their community is coming under existential threat can play a significant role in radicalisation
Ciaran O'Connor: Why do white men become radicalised by conspiracy theories?

Katherine Mielnicki outside Roberta Drury's funeral service last Saturday in Syracuse, New York.  Ms Drury, 32, was the youngest of the 10 killed during a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo. Picture: AP /Lauren Petracca

“I was supposed to do this two months ago. But now I finally feel actually ready.” 

Payton Gendron wrote these words in an online diary days before carrying out a deadly racially-motivated mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York

On May 14, he drove three hours from his home to a predominantly black area upstate to kill 10 people, injuring three others, and broadcast his attack from a helmet-mounted camera on the internet on the video live-streaming platform Twitch.

Prior to the attack, Gendron published a manifesto online outlining his motives and preparations for the massacre, firearm specifications, and detailed his path towards radicalisation on the internet. 

Notably, the document is replete with references to racist conspiracy theories that promote white supremacy, blame immigrants and minority populations for societal problems and spread hatred against people of colour.

The events of this past weekend demonstrate how conspiracy theories intersect with extremist ideologies and can lead people towards violence.

This attack fits into a recent history of atrocities carried out in Oslo, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, El Paso and Halle, all of which bear many similarities — white men, radicalised by conspiracy theories warning of their race’s imminent replacement, targeting minority communities in an act of retribution. 

Mainstreaming replacement theory 

Central to the Buffalo manifesto, much of which was directly lifted from the Christchurch manifesto, is the obsessive discussion of something called the “Great Replacement” theory. 

This is a racist, white supremacist conspiracy theory that contends that ‘pure’ white people are being replaced by ‘impure’ non-white people in a deliberate and sinister process of migration and demographic change covertly enabled by various liberal forces like left-leaning politicians, NGOs, the mainstream media or alleged ‘Jewish elites’. 

Antisemitism runs rife in these beliefs also.

Today, its proponents can be found at the peak of media and politics in Europe and North America. 

A woman pays her respects at the scene of the mass shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, New York. Picture: AP /Matt Rourke
A woman pays her respects at the scene of the mass shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, New York. Picture: AP /Matt Rourke

In the US, a New York Times investigation found that Tucker Carlson promoted the argument that a “cabal of elites want to force demographic change through immigration” in more than 400 shows on Fox News, the most-watched cable news network in the country. 

Republican lawmakers have warned of similar fears and the right-wing extremists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 chanted “You will not replace us.” 

In Europe, Hungary’s returning prime pinister Viktor Orbán used his inaugural speech this week to lambast “the great European population replacement programme”. 

France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s one-time deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and the German and Spanish far-right political parties, AfD and Vox, have all supported the theory too.

Path towards violence 

Terrorism, as a political strategy, is used to attempt to create or accelerate change in society. 

There is not one easy, neat explanation for why someone becomes radicalised or commits an act of terror, though often a person’s perceived loss of status or a feeling that their community is coming under existential threat can play a significant role in radicalisation. 

Other factors include upbringing, mental health, a sense of isolation or low self-esteem, among many other characteristics that are under continuous research.

What conspiracy theories do, quite succinctly, is offer people someone to blame for their own perceived problems, someone who is not like them, someone to pin their victim status on. 

In his manifesto, Gendron spoke of inhabiting online forums like 4chan, where conspiracy theories and hate go hand in hand. 

On 4chan, people of colour are routinely denigrated and portrayed as invaders or parasites, misogyny is championed and white nationalism and white supremacy are not just discussed but promoted through long diatribes, racist infographics and memes. Violence and conflict are often encouraged.

Conspiracy extremist overlap 

Gendron’s online diary and manifesto contained many claims about perceived black-orchestrated injustices and crimes against white people and referenced his time on 4chan where he says he first learned “that the white race is dying out”. 

We must remember that extremists usually write these materials with a view to making them public, garnering coverage and manipulating how their actions are represented by the media and online users. Everything he produced was propaganda.

Why? Because, as Canadian extremism researcher Amarnath Amarasingam explains, the attack operates as a book launch. 

Without the attack, the manifesto is just the ravings of a deranged maniac. It’s the attack that pushes out the manifesto, making it 'required reading'."

It is hopefully clear by now how conspiracy theories, extremist ideologies and acts of violence overlap, and that concepts that amplify ethnic and cultural differences between white and non-white people have long been cited to justify violence.

This sort of thinking is not new and Buffalo is not an isolated act of hate, but more of a copycat. 

It has intrinsic links with Oslo, Christchurch and other terror attacks carried out by white men who believe the white race is under threat.

Interventions 

As reporting continues to emerge, it seems there were numerous warning signs and potential moments of prevention or intervention missed by those around Gendron. 

Enrique Owens, a cousin of Roberta Drury, wears a T-shirt with her photograph on it before her funeral service last Saturday. Picture: AP /Lauren Petracca
Enrique Owens, a cousin of Roberta Drury, wears a T-shirt with her photograph on it before her funeral service last Saturday. Picture: AP /Lauren Petracca

He wanted to be arrested and taken alive to see the fruit of his labour create the change in society he wishes for. 

This is likely why modern violent extremists livestream their attacks online, as it forces people to pay attention and to experience the attack in a visceral way.

It appears that only 22 viewers actually watched the stream before it was taken down by Twitch but it only took one person to download and archive portions of the footage. 

Like the manifesto, it now lives on in copies that are spread privately and publicly and have received hundreds of thousands of views when shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

While it is practically impossible to fully eliminate the footage or the manifesto from the internet, this is why it is crucially important to hold platforms and technology companies to account and ensure this material, fuelled by a dangerous mix of conspiratorial and extremist ideologies, is not allowed to roam free in spaces where they can receive maximum exposure or serve as inspiration or instruction for another violent extremist.

  • Ciaran O’Connor is an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, working in the Research and Policy unit

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