The Buffalo Shooter Recorded His Deadly Attack. Twitter Let the Video Go Viral

The Buffalo Shooter Recorded His Deadly Attack. Twitter Let the Video Go Viral

On Monday, a new Twitter user with the handle @BuffaloSh00ting, the screen name “Buffalo Supermarket Video,” and a bio reading “Buffalo Supermarket Video, Get it here,” popped up on the platform.

The account’s avatar was a depiction of Red Skull, the Nazi supervillain from the Marvel universe; its header image featured a man holding a rifle over a camo vest emblazoned with the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division logo. And true to its promise, the account posted several versions of the gruesome video of the Buffalo massacre, originally live-streamed by the gunman, visually overlayed with fascist imagery, including goose-stepping German soldiers and the SS insignia.

That account (now suspended) was just one of many Twitter users sharing bloody footage of the Buffalo rampage, typically beginning as the gunman exited his vehicle and trained his rifle on shoppers at the Tops supermarket. Rolling Stone discovered more than half a dozen examples on Monday, using basic search terms like “Buffalo video” and “Buffalo vid.” The images of the massacre appeared to be in wide circulation on Twitter, with users complaining of being traumatized: “Stop putting the fucking Buffalo shooting video on my timeline,” wrote one.

For the gunman, who livestreamed his attack hoping it would be recorded, going viral like this was part of the plan. As he wrote in his manifesto, he hoped others seeing and sharing his violent acts would  “increase coverage and spread my beliefs.”

Twitter is in the midst of an on-again, off-again drama with Elon Musk, the billionaire whose $44 billion bid to acquire the social media platform is now “on hold.” Musk has sharply criticized Twitter for going too far in limiting access to offensive content, recently declaring, “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Musk has been unusually silent in the wake of the Buffalo massacre, however, and a Twitter representative said Tuesday the company remains committed to policies that seek to block the dissemination of content that is hateful or glorifies violence.

The Buffalo gunman originally livestreamed his rampage to Twitch on Saturday. And that platform has received praise for removing the video within two minutes of the carnage beginning. But even that swift action didn’t stop at least one user from downloading a copy, after which video of the killings began to circulate widely online.

Tech companies had pledged to do better. Twitter is a signatory to the Christchurch Call — an organized response by governments and social media giants in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings of 2019. Those shootings left 50 dead and were streamed, in part, on Facebook Live. For companies, the voluntary pledge includes a vow to “prevent the upload of terrorist and violent-extremist content and to prevent its dissemination,” including by “its immediate and permanent removal.”

Major social media firms have also developed collaborative high-tech tools to combat the spread of such grizzly content. In 2017, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft, and Facebook launched an NGO called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism that seeks to prevent “violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.”

Late Saturday afternoon, shortly after the shooting, that group launched its “Content Incident Protocol” — putting members on high alert for “perpetrator-produced content depicting the attack.” The protocol enables companies to share data about what images and videos should be flagged. The objective is to enable members to quickly zap bloody videos and pictures across their platforms, in accordance with the companies’ individual policies.

Some 48 hours later, Rolling Stone could not easily pull up copies of the massacre video on YouTube or Facebook. But Twitter was rife with users posting the footage of the rampage that killed 10 people.

As the extreme case of @BuffaloSh00ting illustrated, users sharing the violent footage were not subtle. They promoted the video in plain language that even a rudimentary keyword filter could have flagged. “Warning!” one wrote. “This is the video of the racist murderer that shot up the ‘Tops’ supermarket this weekend in Buffalo, NY.” Another touted the video with the gunman’s name and the words: “MASS SHOOTING VIDEO LAST TIME REUPLOADING!!!!!” Still another wrote “Buffalo Massacre Shooting Full Video” followed by a long string of hashtags intended to broaden the audience for the tweet, ranging from #blm to #WhiteSupremacist.

A Twitter representative provided a statement Tuesday that insisted “our teams are working to proactively identify and take action,” and are “removing videos and media related to the incident.”

But in real time on Monday afternoon and evening, that effort appeared halting and reactive at best, resembling a game of Whac-A-Mole. Each new iteration of violent content would remain live for about 20 minutes after it had been posted. The tweet would then quietly disappear with a notice reading, “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules.” But by that time, another user had posted the footage again. (Twitter took somewhat more aggressive action against @BuffaloSh00ting, with a notice reading that the account “is temporarily unavailable because it violates the Twitter Media Policy”)

Rolling Stone reached out to Twitter on Monday night to ask why so many iterations of the video were reaching the feeds of users. By Tuesday morning, copies of the video were notably more difficult to find, with simple searches no longer surfacing footage of the violence. A source with knowledge of the platform’s efforts to tamp down on the videos says that some accounts appeared to have been sharing footage that had been deliberately tweaked or manipulated to evade the platform’s filters.

The Twitter representative insisted that the company believes that “hateful and discriminatory views promoted in content produced by perpetrators are harmful for society,” adding that “their dissemination should be limited to prevent perpetrators from publicizing their message.”

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