Before embarking on a racist rampage in Buffalo on Saturday, the alleged gunman left behind a document denying membership in “any organization or group.”
That idea, once relegated to the fringe, has gained currency on popular right-wing television programs and in the halls of Congress. The theory, known as the “great replacement,” has turned white nationalism into an international call to arms. The apocalyptic vision has accumulated followers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has deepened political polarization and accelerated the online flow of racist ideology.
“You don’t find this philosophy just on the fringes of the Internet and among the most extreme groups anymore,” said Milan Obaidi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oslo who has studied “great replacement” rhetoric and the violence it has provoked. “It’s becoming mainstream. You see established politicians in Europe and the U.S. touting similar ideas.”
A French presidential candidate, conservative Valérie Pécresse, referred explicitly to the “great replacement” on the campaign trail in the winter. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) highlighted its tenets in a congressional hearing last year. And Tucker Carlson, the most-watched host on Fox News, has championed the ideology, which holds not just that immigration is reshaping demography and politics but that a cadre of elites is engineering population changes for political gain.
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans say they are extremely or very concerned that “native-born Americans are losing economic, political, and cultural influence in this country because of the growing population of immigrants,” according to recent polling from the Associated Press and NORC.
Since 2012, when French polemicist Renaud Camus used the term as the title for a self-published book spreading fantastical claims about immigrants killing off European culture, his conspiracy theories have been translated on far-right forums and turned into catchphrases deployed by extremists.
Gendron, who wrote that he grew concerned about declining White birthrates and the “genocide of the European people” by trawling 4chan, the anonymous online message board, is only the latest exponent of the “great replacement” to turn to violence.
His forerunners and role models have left a trail of destruction stretching from Norway, where Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, including 69 at a summer camp, on a single day in 2011, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where Brenton H. Tarrant killed 51 at a pair of mosques in 2019. Both men promoted their ideology in hate-filled writings that railed against immigration and argued that violence was necessary to preserve Western civilization.
Their ideas, which drew on earlier screeds, including those issued by American neo-Nazis, echoed this weekend — first on the Internet and then from the barrel of a gun in Buffalo. It’s there that Gendron is accused of opening fire at a supermarket in a mostly Black area of the city, killing 10 and injuring three more. He allegedly wielded an assault weapon that appeared to display a racial slur and the names of earlier mass shooters. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
Using online tools to sensationalize his terror, and to invite participation and emulation, the gunman broadcast his attack on the live-streaming service Twitch, using a GoPro camera mounted on his helmet.
He assembled a to-do list on the messaging platform Discord, where he mused about race science and blamed Jews for scarcity and economic hardship — an anti-Semitic trope. And he weighed in on discussions of guns and other gear on the aggregation and discussion platform Reddit. Throughout, he deployed a username referring to a meme that parrots Black vernacular.
He wrote in the document — created on May 12, according to metadata, and uploaded to Google Drive — that he wanted everyone to “watch and record.” Screenshots from Gendron’s Twitch stream show only about 22 people were viewing at the time of his rampage, and some videos posted Saturday night displayed just the first few minutes, as he drove his car around a parking lot, then got out with a rifle in hand.
A Twitch spokeswoman said the stream was removed within two minutes of the violence starting. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a tech-industry group founded after portions of the mosque shootings in Christchurch were live-streamed on Facebook in 2019, said it had immediately added the video to a terrorism database that could automatically block its posting on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites.
But by Sunday morning, videos showing the carnage had begun circulating online, including in at least one linked post on Facebook that was online for 10 hours and had gained more than 500 comments and 46,000 shares. The site where the video had been hosted, Streamable, removed it hours later, after it had already been viewed more than 3 million times. The company did not respond to requests for comment. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the video violated the platform’s terms of service and that the post has been removed.
Gendron’s 180-page document describes his radicalization on Internet forums and details a plan to target the Black community in Buffalo, 200 miles from his home in Conklin, N.Y.
It makes explicit the inspiration he found from Breivik and, in particular, from Tarrant, while also citing hate-fueled murders at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Halle, Germany, as well as at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Fear of a “great replacement” animated cries of “You will not replace us” at the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, after which President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
Gendron’s document apes many of Tarrant’s words, a sign of how directly extremists are citing one another when they resort to violence. “It’s textbook,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.
Twenty-eight percent of the document is plagiarized from the declaration left by the Christchurch shooter, according to an analysis conducted by the Khalifa Ihler Institute, a Sweden-based think tank that seeks to combat extremism. Tarrant is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Tarrant’s live-streamed attack, Gendron’s document states, “started everything you see here.”
“Brenton started my real research into the problems with immigration and foreigners in our White lands, without his live-stream I would likely have no idea about the real problems the West is facing,” it continues.
The suspect said he had started browsing 4chan in May 2020 because of his “extreme boredom” during the pandemic and had been radicalized by charts and memes he said had showed him the “truth.” While browsing the forum, he saw archived footage from the Christchurch mosque shooter’s live-streamed attack. “I eventually found his manifesto and I read it, and I found that I mostly agreed,” he wrote.
The 4chan message boards and its offshoots, like 8chan, have effectively no rules, are anonymous and are loaded with racist memes, hateful jokes and calls to violence. The sites have commonly been cited in mass shootings.
These online forums, rather than cable news or congressional hearings, seem to have radicalized Gendron, said Miller-Idriss.
“We know that there’s tremendous mainstreaming of the ‘great replacement’ narrative by politicians and cable news pundits like Tucker Carlson,” Miller-Idriss said. “It’s really dangerous, and at the same time, there’s every indication so far that his exposure came through anonymous online spaces and not necessarily through mainstream media.”
Gendron’s document states that he came to his beliefs “Mostly from the Internet.”
In that way, his itinerary in extremist communities typifies the international spread of white nationalism, which increasingly occurs through online networks rather than organized groups, Miller-Idriss said. The pandemic accelerated this trend.
“You can’t discount the role of organized groups for sourcing and propaganda,” she said. “But the adherence is not to one organization or another with a membership roster and regular meetings. It’s to networked online spaces where people engage with and radicalize through exposure to extremist content, some of which is created by groups.”
Nor can the mainstreaming of the content be discounted, said Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on political violence and an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It’s being floated, he said, on prime-time television and by elected leaders.
Carlson, on his popular Fox show, has been unapologetic about his discussion of themes underlying the “great replacement” narrative.
“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” he said in April 2021. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually.”
Perry, the Pennsylvania Republican, raised the idea during a hearing held by a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee the same month.
“For many Americans, what seems to be happening or what they believe right now is happening is, what appears to them is we’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans — to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation,” Perry said.
A Fox spokeswoman did not address Carlson’s commentary about the “great replacement” narrative, including a request for evidence underlying his claims, but pointed to several instances in which the host has said he stands against political violence. Aides to Perry did not respond to requests for comment.
At the state level, far-right lawmakers have spoken even more plainly. “We are being replaced and invaded,” Wendy Rogers, a Republican state senator in Arizona who has become a fundraising phenomenon based on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, wrote on Twitter last summer. On Saturday, she took to the social networking service Gab to suggest without evidence that the Buffalo shooting was a false flag, perpetrated by federal agents.
The most dangerous dimensions of the “great replacement” worldview — “that something needs to be done about it and that violence is justified” — remain mostly limited to fringe forums, Amarasingam said.
“But getting people to the point of what used to be a radicalized idea — that’s what has become mainstream,” he said. “It’s on millions of televisions each night.”
Razzan Nakhlawi and Scott Clement contributed to this report.