CW: Violence, racism, anti-Semitism, death, terrorism

Note: At no point do any of the hyperlinks provided include any direct link to right-wing sites. Perpetrators of terrorist atrocities are deliberately not mentioned. It should be stressed that at no point should the materials of perpetrators be accessed, shared or distributed.

On Saturday 14th May, a white gunman entered a supermarket in Buffalo New York and murdered ten people and wounded an additional three in the predominantly African American neighbourhood of Masten Park. All those who died were Black. Evidence indicates that the shooting was an act of white supremacist terrorism, with the gunman specifically choosing a predominantly Black neighbourhood (Masten Park is over 72% Black). That the violence can be attributed to white supremacy comes in part from a long ‘manifesto’ uploaded to the internet. This 180-page document, which has significant sections plagiarised from the scribes of other perpetrators of white supremacist violence, attributes motivation in large part to the white supremacist conspiracy theories of ‘white genocide’ and ‘the great replacement’.

These overlapping baseless conspiracies hold that white-majority nations, including the United States (US), are undergoing deliberate demographic changes by ‘elites’ (both political elites and a more racialised focus on Jewish ‘elites’), through non-white immigration and higher birth rates by non-whites. Unfortunately, much of what is known about the shootings in Buffalo conform to existing patterns of extreme-right, and in particular white supremacist violence. That the perpetrator acted alone, was motivated by these conspiratorial beliefs, was seemingly radicalised and immersed in an online white supremacist sub-culture, and live streamed the attack to the internet, have become depressingly familiar hallmarks of extreme-right terrorism, particularly white supremacist terrorism.

Defining the Violent Extreme-Right

Defining the contours of the ‘extreme-right’ (also referred to as ‘right-wing extremism’ or the ‘radical right’) can be challenging. Many academics and analysts note the heterogeneity of the extreme-right, with differences in enemies, ideological belief systems, and visions of the future, as well as the utilisation of violence. However, it is possible to synthesise a working concept of the extreme right as an anti-democratic worldview which is predicated on ethnically or racially driven concepts of the nation, and which is characterised by conspiratorial beliefs around in-group vs out-group struggles in which the in-group is under threat from both elites and outsiders.

Out of this emerges the concept of the violent extreme right. In the United States, two primary movements are dominant within the violent extreme right – the white supremacist movement, and the militia/Patriot movement. While there are overlapping themes and beliefs across these sub-strands, there are also significant differences and primary motivators. For instance, a 2021 US National Intelligence Report highlighted that while ‘racially or ethnically motivated extremists (RMVEs) and militia violent extremists (MVEs) present the most lethal DVE (domestic violent extremists) threats’, their motivations and targets differ. For the MVE movement, which is chiefly concerned with what they regard as a tyrannical and unconstitutional government seeking to establish a totalitarian regime, the primary targets are law enforcement and government officials. Meanwhile, RMVEs – which includes neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists ­– are motivated by a belief in the superiority of what they regard as the ‘white race’, and that importantly, that this race is under-attack, mostly engineered as part of a Jewish conspiracy. The report found that these extremists were most likely to conduct mass-casualty civilian attacks, and examples of this violence have shown that the targets of such mass violence are non-white and Semitic communities. It is this sub-category which has become the dominant strand of extreme-right terrorism in the US, and in which the attacks in Buffalo should be seen as a part of.

The Conspiracy Cornerstone

Within this white supremacist viewpoint, the conspiracy theories of ‘white genocide’ and ‘the great replacement’ ­– both stressing that white majorities are under deliberate attack through demographic change – are the cornerstones of this belief system. These notions are by no means new concepts. The goal of maintaining white supremacy, of which concepts such as replacement and genocide rely on, has long been a mobilising force for violent extreme-right extremism in Europe and the US. From the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865 to the European fascist movements of the early 20th century and the paramilitary groups of the 1970s, extreme-right violence has been predicated on the need to use force to ensure either the eradication or the subordination of non-white communities.

Though the two concepts have been increasingly brought under the same umbrella, they have very different origins. The “White Genocide” conspiracy was popularised in the 1990s by the convicted American neo-Nazi terrorist, David Lane, a centrally important figure to the modern US white supremacist movement. Lane, who also created the white supremacist creed the ‘14 words’ which advocate the need to ‘secure the existence of our people and a future for our White children’, consistently wrote about the idea that white America was being destroyed through demographic change, and Lane’s ideas and words are routinely found in the online diatribes of white supremacist terrorists.

Meanwhile “the Great Replacement”, another conspiracy central to white supremacist violence, has its roots in late 1960s in France. During this period, a new coalition of the far-right began to form around the think-tank Research and Study Group for Civilisation (GRECE), which became the backbone of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) movement. During the 1970s, this movement began to focus on supposed cultural differences, which itself spawned the white supremacist identarian movement. This movement which still underpins much of the European extreme right, is centred around cultural and racial ‘differences’, and propagates the conspiracy that political elites are engineering demographic change to create a more pliable voter base through migration of (largely) Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa. The term for this has become “The Great Replacement”, popularised by the writer Renaud Camus in their 2011 book of the same name.

These two conspiracies, and others such as “Cultural Marxism” ­– another antisemitic conspiracy theory positing that Jewish elites are seeking to destroy ‘white culture’ – have amalgamated on the extreme right to the point where there is little to differentiate between them. Many of the writings of perpetrators of white supremacist terrorism have references to the two found within them almost interchangeably. In the US, where migration on the US southern border from Central and South America is most visible in the media and political discourse, the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy has shifted to deliberate demographic change, still engineered by Jewish elites, but with migrants from Latin America instead of Muslims. A series of shootings at synagogues throughout the US in 201819 came at the same time as much conservative media attention was being focused on the migrant ‘caravans’ at the southern border. Many of the online writings of perpetrators made specific reference to the shootings being in response to what they believed was migration deliberately engineered by the Jewish community as part of a plan to destroy the ‘white race’ in the US. The shooting at Buffalo differs in the sense that Black victims were the target of the attack, but the same warped beliefs of deliberate replacement, the supposed superiority of whites (the manifesto used the seriously flawed and racist writings from a professor of marketing at Notre Dame, John Gaski on crime statistics), and the need to use violence as part of an accelerationist plan to speed up a race-war in the US.

Born in the USA

Since 1993, right wing extremism in the US experienced a notable up-tick. Initially driven by anti-government beliefs closely tied to the Christian-right and militia movements, the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing was the deadliest of these atrocities, with 168 people killed. The 1990s also marked a rebirth of the neo-Nazi movement in the US, which focused on a new form of white supremacist terrorism. Two books are at the centre of contemporary neo-Nazi/white supremacist violence in the US – The Turner Diaries and Siege. These two apocalyptic books revel in violence, and see individual or small-group terrorism as a deliberate strategy to speed up the overthrow of the state, by highlighting the fragility of the existing regime through destabilisation – a concept known as accelerationism ­– culminating in a full-scale race war whereby out of the ashes a new, patriarchal white ethnostate can be created.

The influence of these thoughts can be seen in the types of atrocities conducted by right-wing terrorists: mass-casualty attacks on non-white and Jewish communities and individuals. Though there are outliers, such as the 2011 Norway attacks which predominantly targeted children attending a summer-camp organised by a social-democratic political party, US RMVE attacks have overwhelmingly centred on ethnic-minority populations and the Jewish communities, such as the 2015 mass-casualty incident at a African-American Church in South Carolina in which nine Black parishioners were killed by a white gunman. These texts have become staples in the culture of the online, non-organised extreme-right, and are found within the texts of those conducting individual mass-casualty attacks.

Hate 2.0

Understanding the importance of online space is vital to understanding contemporary white supremacist violence in the US. While the online extreme-right has been in existence since the 1990s with the emergence of the now-defunct neo-Nazi website Stormfront, it is web 2.0 which has seen the most notable growth of the online extreme-right. The contemporary extreme-right is practically synonymous with the internet, and particularly with the chat boards of the ‘Chans’ – 4chan and 8chan. The perpetrator of the shootings in Buffalo said that they had been drawn to 4chan through boredom during the COVID-19 lockdowns, indicative of the powerful radicalising tool that online spaces provide for the extreme right. These forums are characterised not by the hierarchies or group structures of organised violent extreme-right groups, but instead offer a sense of community for individuals which may be elusive in the real world. These online spaces have their own languages and codes, and are heavily based on existing internet culture, notably memes. Here, existing symbols from wider one subculture are overlaid with the meanings and conspiracies of the extreme right. Analysis of the manifesto of the perpetrator of the Buffalo shootings show that of the 180 pages written, a number were simply images of online racist memes.  The perpetrators of these attacks are then transformed into martyrs online, generating their own memes, which in turn are used to inspire other acts of violence.  

Online forums allow a sense of identity and communication between individual members of the extreme right, creating echo chambers which can foster real-world violence. The embeddedness of the extreme-right movement on the internet allows for the dissemination of ideas and communication between individuals and groups across borders, something which the 2019 US National Intelligence report on violent domestic terrorism notes as a particular concern. While the majority of violent acts committed by white supremacists are conducted by individuals with no official affiliation to organised extreme-right groups, they are heavily immersed in these online white supremacist subcultures whereby they communicate with, and learn from, other white supremacists around the world. The manifestos of white supremacist terrorists provide examples of this phenomenon in their plagiarism and references to other atrocities and terrorists. The perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in their last post on the online message board 8chan said that they could no longer sit back online and needed to engage in real-world violence, a common trend within online inspired white supremacist terrorism.

From the Fringes to the Mainstream

While online spaces provide inspiration and encouragement for moving violent thinking into reality, they also demonstrate the importance of the internet in disseminating ideas from these sub-cultures into the mainstream. The online extreme-right does not stop at the borders of the Chans. They spill out into wider-social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Here, the overt connotations of white supremacist violence may be obscured to gain traction in these spaces, as in the alt-right movement which deliberately eschews overt imageries of the extreme-right, but in which the antisemitic and white supremacist messages are covertly hidden. They can also use existing online-dominated conspiracies, whether it be the QAnon movement believed by 17% of Americans (which itself is underpinned by antisemitic conspiracies) or the ‘Big Lie’, believed by 53-55% of Republicans (the false belief that Donald Trump is the legitimate winner of the 2020 US presidential election), to use as a springboard into more mainstream conspiracies. The extreme right are well-placed to exploit those who already believe in existing conspiracies based on in-group vs out-group narratives, by providing a meta-narrative to underpin a wider conspiratorial milieu.

But it is the direct presence of the conspiratorial beliefs which underpinned the shootings in Buffalo within the mainstream US conservative movement that poses a significant concern. The aftermath of 14th May has highlighted the presence of white supremacist conspiracies, particularly ‘the great replacement’, within the mainstream US conservative movement. The presence of this rhetoric in the mainstream indicates a dangerous feedback loop between the extreme right and the conservative right, with the central conspiracy behind acts of domestic terrorism now believed by nearly half of Republican voters, and one in three US citizens.