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US is letting its people be radicalized through social media

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Buffalo, much has been made of the role social media has played in radicalizing the shooter and hosting his content. Gov. Hochul has directed an investigation into the “danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate.” The New Yorker went so far as to claim that online spaces “enable” mass shooters. MSNBC has grasped onto the shooting as proof that Elon Musk shouldn’t be able to buy Twitter, because he’ll allow free speech without responsibility.

Can online radicalization directly facilitate offline behavior? That central question appears less important than the politics interested parties can play with it, particularly as the conversation intentionally overlooks the role social media may have played in a shooting which occurred the day following the tragedy in Buffalo, at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, Calif.

David Chou, a naturalized American citizen born in Taiwan, was reportedly motivated by political hatred against Taiwan. After chaining the doors shut, disabling the locks with glue, and placing firebombs around the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, he attempted to mow down worshipers before being overcome and hogtied by parishioners. 

One person was killed and five were wounded. Chou is now charged with first-degree murder. 

David Chou was arrested for shooing up the Laguna Woods Church in California.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department via REUTERS

According to reports, he was an avowed Chinese nationalist who vehemently opposed Taiwanese independence. His commitment to that cause seems as gripping as Buffalo shooting suspect Payton Gendron’s descent into racism-fueled mental illness. But if we are going to claim that Gendron’s shooting spree was influenced by the Internet, we should also examine the role China’s manipulation of American social-media companies played in confirming Chou’s worst instincts.

The Chinese state is well-versed in manipulating American social media toward its own propagandistic ends. The tentacle-like reach of China is often masked by the anonymity of accounts the Chinese government pays to set up, and the half-hearted efforts by the tech giants to control Chinese accounts or the influencers they pay.

Amy of spam bots 

In 2021, The New York Times reported on state efforts by the Shanghai police to create hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms. The contractor “should provide about 300 accounts per month on each platform,” the notice read, and suggested that the accounts be used to quickly steer public discussion in a pro-China direction. 

In this July 21, 2020 file photo, a man opens social media app 'TikTok' on his cell phone, in Islamabad, Pakistan.
China reportedly pays social media influences to spew anti-Western propaganda.
AP/Anjum Naveed

The Chinese government has also been found to pay social media influencers on TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube to promote Chinese narratives and anti-Western ones. In some cases China has paid American firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit social media influencers for them. Though social-media firms claim they address this problem by labeling these accounts as “state-funded media,” an AP investigation concluded that the label was, at best, inconsistently applied.

Accounts with ties to the Chinese government — both fake and real — push propaganda aimed at downplaying the genocide of the country’s Uygher Muslim minority, promoting the Chinese Communist Party, accusing Hong Kong protesters of being backed by an “anti-Chinese-American conspiracy,” attempting to diminish China’s role in the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and promoting China’s supremacy over Taiwan.

China’s influence on American social media, in other words, is far more prevalent than Big Tech companies often want to discuss. And if we are going to assume the Buffalo shooter was radicalized online, then shouldn’t we also discuss how the unchecked whirlwind of Chinese propaganda may have played a role in Chou shooting up a Taiwanese church? It would certainly seem so.

Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing.
Shanghai police have created hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms, the New York Times reported last year.
AP/Mark Schiefelbein

Picking convenient foes

But discussion of the latter remains mute. Tech companies continue to take a tepid approach to cracking down on China’s state-run manipulation campaign, choosing instead to focus on combating countries like Russia, which maintain a much smaller influence. Social-media discussion of the Buffalo shooting, including circulation of the shooter’s manifesto, is curtailed, while it does not appear that anti-Taiwanese bias is given any consideration.

The reasoning here is as obvious as it is craven. For Democrats and elite media, fretting over the motivations of a pro-China shooter doesn’t help their politics. And for tech companies, engaging in such a discussion would mean spotlighting the glaring and invasive problem of Chinese state propaganda on their platforms — an issue they could actually be doing more about.