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Extremists exploit gaming networks and social media to recruit and radicalize

A man sits at a computer monitor to play a video game. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
A man sits at a computer monitor to play a video game. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

The suspect who allegedly carried out the attack in Buffalo, New York, grocery store mounted a camera to his helmet and livestreamed on Twitch as he shot 13 people, killing 10.

The livestream was taken down within two minutes, but the video was shared across the internet and viewed millions of times. It’s a stark reminder of how extremists can exploit gaming platforms to promote violence and recruit and radicalize gamers.

In 2019, a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, went live on Facebook before he shot and killed 51 people at local mosques. And that same year, a gunman in Germany livestreamed his attack on Twitch.

Alex Newhouse, deputy director at the Middlebury Institute Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, points out that the violence is not linked to the games themselves.

“We’ve had decades now of studies showing that the actual content of video games doesn’t actually have that much link to real world violence,” says Newhouse. “So violent video games aren’t actually linked to violence in the real world.”

The problem, he says, is that the last two decades made it clear that games are social networks, not just content. With video games and the internet come platforms built to facilitate social interaction and relationships.

And extremists have also realized that these platforms often lag behind bigger social media platforms in terms of content moderation, Newhouse says.

“So they’re able to use gaming platforms, because of those vulnerabilities, to radicalize people and also to mobilize existing extremists,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On how a young person might be recruited to a right-wing group through a gaming platform

“You’ll often get a cell of extremists who will go into a gaming chat room or a party chat in Fortnite or a group in Call of Duty, for instance, and they’ll use racial slurs or some other type of extremist content. … They’ll monitor the people in those group chats and see who is responding positively with laughter, maybe asking questions about the certain use of these specific extremist terms. And then the people who respond well to that will be invited into a deeper group chat. So they’ll go through these series of filters from the broad public and end with people who have been basically cultivated to respond positively to extremist stimuli.

“It happens through other ways as well. We’ve seen it happening where groups within the platform will interact with one another to make it look like they are a bigger organization than they actually are, which gives the feeling to potential new recruits of being important. There’s almost sort of like an organic magnetism towards those types of networks as well.”

On what gaming companies are doing in response

“They are investing in a lot of counter-radicalization, a lot of disruption enforcement mechanisms. Content moderation is being invested in at rates never before seen. The problem is, especially within the gaming industry, there are dozens of different companies, most of which have nowhere near the resources of the big companies.

“As a result, a lot of these smaller companies are suddenly finding themselves on the vanguard of trying to disrupt extremist radicalization. And they simply do not have the resources. They do not have the knowledge. So there are burgeoning efforts now to create coalitions of companies and experts to try to pool resources. But it’s still in its infancy, and we can say pretty definitively that the games industry is still pretty far behind social media giants.”

On games developed by extremists that show racist and anti-Semitic violence

“Extremists have been dabbling in the creation of games since the early 2000s, if not even before. The games themselves can come in the form of standalone games that you go and buy on a storefront. Or they can actually be sort of smaller, bite-sized experiences that are built within game creation platforms like Roblox or Minecraft even.

“And these games can be used as radicalization pipelines themselves. Some of the examples that have been mentioned before and that I’ve studied myself include things like re-enactments of concentration camps in Roblox, that are designed, again, to find people who are potentially willing to engage more in that type of highly virulent activity.”

On whether the Buffalo shooting may prompt game-adjacent social media companies, such as Twitch, to respond

“It’s still a very reactive industry, but I do think that an event like this will have that sort of catalyzing force for moving in a better direction. I’ve been contacted by companies and other organizations about this issue over the past week, so that’s at least a good sign.”

James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Francesca Paris adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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