Buffalo shootings show Great Replacement lie is gaining support

With America deeply divided, hatred is thriving in the growing vacuum

In a world gripped by volatility, there is something tragically stoic about the inevitability of terrorism; so too the inevitability that the act will dominate the news cycle for a day, maybe two, before dissolving into the ether. We find ourselves at the tail end of such an event. On Saturday May 14th, an 18-year old gunman travelled over 200 miles before entering the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and injuring three others in a mass shooting frenzy that, owing to the camera affixed to his helmet, was livestreamed to an audience of like-minded supporters on Twitch, an interactive livestreaming platform.

As with many mass shootings carried out by white men in the US, early accounts often settle on a facile debate as to whether the act constitutes “terrorism” or not. This debate is easily solved. There are four main components of a terrorist attack: the event is premeditated, targeted against civilians, born of a political motive and intended to influence an audience. The Buffalo shooting meets all those criteria and if there is to be a debate about whether the motive was political in nature, that too is also easily solved.

Before driving to his pre-scouted destination – a popular, open space in a predominantly black neighbourhood – the attacker uploaded a 180-page manifesto on 4Chan, an online image board notorious for its “anything goes” culture, which hosts a range of extremist content. In this dark recess of the internet, the “unsayable” is not only spoken as a matter of course but upvoted by like-minded communities who percolate in a subculture of hate and slight around deeply racist assertions through a shared vocabulary of memes, irony and dark humour.

At its core, the Great Replacement theory centres on the demographic and cultural fragility of a white race variously threatened by minorities and migrants

Before uploading the manifesto, the gunman had primed his audience by releasing (and discussing) a checklist for the attack on Discord – a loosely regulated messaging platform – ensuring that when the livestream began, it could be anticipated and spread across more mainstream social networks (such as Facebook and Twitter) to the attention of mass audiences.

The embedded rapidity of this ecosystem ensures new variations of a classic theme: terrorist attacks require that people take notice, for in doing so, the political message that underlies the attack can be broadcast and discussed. Terrorism is communication and the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto follows those similarly uploaded by far-right and white supremacist attackers, such as Anders Breivik (Oslo/Uttoya, 2011), Dylan Roof (Charleston, 2015) and Brenton Tarrant (Christchurch, 2019).

The themes are deeply similar and in some cases, identical: large tranches of the Buffalo attacker’s manifesto are copied and pasted from that of Brenton Tarrant (who also livestreamed his attack), who cited Anders Breivik as a hero in his 74-page “treatise”. Underpinning all these manifestos – and the acts of violence committed in their name –lies a highly influential and mainstreamed conspiracy theory: the Great Replacement.

At its core, the Great Replacement theory centres on the demographic and cultural fragility of a white race variously threatened by minorities and migrants. The theory developed in far-right circles throughout the 1990s; it lay at the heart of Breivik’s grievances; and, in 2017, it was reinvigorated via the faux-intellectualism of French thinker Renaud Camus (no relation to Albert), who instilled a renewed sense of urgency: “You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people”.

This urgency (which often underpins violent extremism) has been leveraged by prominent members of the Republican party who, having long abandoned any recourse to moral or responsible engagement with the electorate, often place it front and centre of their political discourse. At a campaign event in April 2022, for example, Republican senate candidate JD Vance declared: “You’re talking about a shift in the democratic makeup of this country that would mean we never win, meaning Republicans would never win a national election in this country ever again.” In 2017, congressman Steve King put it more plainly, tweeting: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The harsh reality is that the Great Replacement recycles classic narratives of racist division that have cast a long shadow over the American dream

These narratives are further amplified in a fiercely competitive media landscape where moral panic is manna for audience retention – a dynamic that is not lost on the producers of the Tucker Carlson Show, one of the most popular mainstream outlets for right-wing political discussion in the US. The Great Replacement is a mainstay for Carlson, with a recent New York Times investigation finding that “in more than 400 episodes, [Carlson] has amplified the idea that Democratic politicians and others want to force demographic change through immigration”. The Buffalo shooter infused his manifesto with this sentiment, arguing that black Americans would replace the white race and that their mere presence is a form of demographic antagonism that must be (violently) confronted.

As in the aftermath of so many terrorist attacks, attention is now turning to the prevention of future, similar events. Calls to regulate the dissemination of extremist content on social media ring loud, but ultimately, they may ring hollow. Amazon– which owns Twitch– terminated the livestream within two minutes of its broadcast; Facebook required 12 minutes to take down streams that had appeared on its platform. These takedown measures surely help, but the simple fact is that those who wish to view the video and read the manifesto can do so through simple Google and Twitter searches and consultation of well-known sites that house extreme content.

More effective moderation of extremist content can be achieved – indeed, as of June 7th, social media companies are mandated to remove extremist content in a timely fashion, via the EU Regulation 2021/784 – but it will not act as a panacea to the undercurrents of hate that drive popular engagement with the Great Replacement as the siren song of contemporary right-wing extremism.

In the aftermath of the Buffalo attack, US president Joe Biden said, “A racially motivated hate crime is abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation,” adding that “any act of domestic terrorism... perpetrated in the name of a repugnant white nationalist ideology is antithetical to everything we stand for in America.”

The harsh reality is that the Great Replacement recycles classic narratives of racist division that have cast a long shadow over the American dream and continue to plague official assertions of unity. America is a country deeply divided and hate has grown in this vacuum. As the families of the Buffalo victims are left to comprehend unspeakable tragedy, the stoic inevitability of right-wing terrorism once again pulls into view. The next attack is only a matter of when and where; addressing the threat will take much more than takedowns, thoughts and prayers.

Dr James Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor in Security Studies at the School of Law and Government at DCU and founding director of the Erasmus Mundus International Master in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS).