As details of last week’s mass shooting in Kentucky unfolded, users in fringe online forums known for extremist activity were asking each other, “Where’s the livestream?” This fervent curiosity extended to posts on mainstream social media sites, with spammy links popping up promising to show the carnage.
On Twitter, one tweet asking for the location of the livestream declared that the user “REALLY” needed to see the footage. On 4chan, where denizens have gleefully distributed and commented on livestreams of past attacks, as soon as the existence of a livestream was revealed users were seen clamoring to know who had a copy. On Telegram, where extremists encourage the emulation of past shooters who have filmed their deeds with GoPro cameras, users asked where they could view the livestream and promoted similar actions. On a Reddit page, users discussed the existence of a livestream and how posting it there would violate the subreddit rules while several comments asked others to “send it if you have it” — one emphasizing the desire to see it with a pair of all-caps “PLEASE.”
A 25-year-old employee attacked the Old National Bank in Louisville on April 10, killing five people and wounding eight. Shooter Connor Sturgeon livestreamed the workplace violence on Instagram; parent company Meta said the footage was removed as soon as possible. Citing an unnamed city official, CNN reported that the livestream showed the gunman being greeted by a worker before he shot her in the back, then firing at other co-workers for a minute before sitting in the lobby to wait another minute and a half for police to arrive. Sturgeon was subsequently shot and killed in a gunfight with responding officers.
A combination of the shooter’s relative online anonymity — no advertisement of his actions on a site like 4chan before the attack, for example — and prompt removal appear to have kept the livestream video from spreading like wildfire. Previous shootings have demonstrated that once a video is out there being shared, copied and circulated it is impossible to stop its propagation and distribution.
In 2019, white supremacist Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant began streaming on Facebook Live before he walked into the Al Noor Mosque and began shooting victims who had gathered for Friday prayers. The video prompted social media companies to reflect on how they could detect and remove such extremist content quicker. But Tarrant’s video spread fast, continues to be used by extremists across the spectrum of white supremacism and accelerationism, and is readily accessible in various corners of the web to this day. Furthermore, subsequent killers have cited the livestream as a critical point of inspiration and motivation as they planned and conducted their own attacks. Juraj Krajcik, who killed two people and wounded a third outside of a Bratislava LGBT bar in October, wrote in his manifesto that viewing Tarrant’s video “was something else” and “truly unique – maybe it was the fact that it was livestreamed, or the video-game-like view of the whole event, or just the general slaughter … The video felt ‘different’ to most other content that I had seen before [emphasis Krajcik’s].”
The Livestream Spectators
There are reasons not connected to extremist movements, ideology, or content promotion that some people seek out the livestream of a mass shooting or other act of targeted violence:
Macabre curiosity: Think of the looky-loos who slow down to a crawl to gawk at a bloody car wreck. Like these drivers who can cause another accident through surrendering to the distraction, viewing and sharing livestream footage for no reason other than morbid curiosity is not harmless. Wanting to see livestream attack footage out of curiosity is both a reflection of desensitization to violence and an action that can feed the sensationalism of violent acts, particularly if the content is shared with others and links are posted ensuring the livestream’s staying power in the online sphere. There is also the likelihood that some who harbor suicidal ideations or are teetering at the edge of extremist ideology will feel dangerously nourished by this kind of first-person, bird’s-eye-view violent content.
Activism: Some calls on social media to release the livestream footage have argued that the violence needs to be shown in order to further shock viewers and build support for stricter gun laws.
Like clockwork, conspiracy theorists on social media are quick to brand mass shootings as “false flag” operations intended to further a policy agenda or distract from another event. These individuals seek livestream videos in an attempt to prove a “false flag” theory, disprove that the shooting occurred, assert that the government was behind the incident, etc. Conspiracy theory extremism has the potential to feed violence if an individual believes that they need to use an act of force in order to stop what they believe is occurring.
This is a trend in which the number of lives lost in an act of mass violence is reduced to a “score,” with the shooter framed as a protagonist in a video game as the viewer cheers on a high “kill count.” Footage of the Christchurch shootings, for example, was doctored by Tarrant’s “fans” after the 2019 massacre to add video game sounds and graphics. “Messaging from [Racially Motivated Violent Extremists] espousing the superiority of the white race has furthered this narrative by framing previous attacks as resulting in a ‘score,’” said a 2021 joint domestic terrorism report to Congress from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. “Additionally, widely disseminated propaganda on online forums and encrypted chat applications that espouse similar themes regarding kill counts could inspire future attackers to mobilize faster or attempt increasingly lethal and more sophisticated attacks.”
Extremists often do postmortems on attacks — regardless of whether or not an adherent to their own ideology was pulling the trigger — in order to discuss what was deemed to have been done well by the killer and what could be done differently to inflict more terror the next time. While the 2021 Boulder supermarket shooting has not been called an act of terrorism by prosecutors, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula studied the attack in a special Inspire: Praise and Guide issue and offered recommendations based on the mass shooting to lone jihadists: “Filming the operation with a head camera and broadcasting it live directly via Facebook or YouTube, and this is the best method. So our enemies who killed the Muslims in New Zealand in this way would not be ahead of us… You can also make someone else film the operation directly and straightaway send your message through the media.”
No matter the ideology of the killer, a video showing a shooter’s point of view as an attack is conducted will be used to fuel future perpetrators. Bits of a livestream will make it into memes that directly encourage others to launch — and livestream — their own attacks. Extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda and movements including neo-Nazis and accelerationists use first-person attack footage in propaganda videos intended to both recruit and incite. Additionally, the role of livestreams in inspiring other attacks is not necessarily limited to those acting out of extremist ideology but potential “suicide-by-cop” shooters.
Through distribution of livestreams that urge would-be shooters to conducts attacks of their own, extremists hope to breed a chain of copycats who come to see themselves in the killer’s point of view and leave behind their own footage to raise up the next mass shooter.
“Brenton’s livestream started everything you see here,” Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron wrote in his 180-page manifesto. “…Without his livestream I would likely have no idea about the real problems the West is facing.” Gendron later explained that he first saw a GIF of the Christchurch livestream while browsing 4chan then went in search of the full video, and viewing that led him to find Tarrant’s manifesto. “I then found other fighters, like Patrick Crucius, Anders Breivek, Dylann Roof, and John Earnest,” he said. “…It was there I started to think about commiting [sic] to an attack. To commit to violence. I would follow Tarrant’s lead and the attacks of so many others like him.”
Deeper in the document, Gendron described his strategic plan from target selection to weapons and transportation. “Video will be livestreamed and manifesto published online to increase coverage and spread my beliefs,” he noted, adding in a timetable that he would check Discord after filming began to ensure the livestream was working properly. “I think that live streaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me,” he said.
Gendron discussed his GoPro camera and said that he chose Twitch as the live-streaming platform in part because “a previous attack was recorded on Twitch (Halle Synagogue Shooting) that lasted about 35 minutes, which for me shows that there is enough time to capture everything important.” He acknowledged that “this may not work as intended if it’s reported and taken down early.” After the Buffalo attack Twitch said it removed the video within the first two minutes of the initiation of the live footage, but by this time it had already gotten in the hands of those who would distribute the livestream.
As the Bratislava shooter moved from embracing extremist ideology to planning violent action, Krajcik declared in his manifesto that “the final nail in the coffin was Payton Gendron,” whose “livestream gave me new inspiration, a new impulse to do what had to be done after years of procrastination.”
The inspiration that can be provided by a shooting livestream isn’t limited by ideological constraints, and once the livestream has an audience it will forever have a home somewhere on the internet. What might be initially circulated out of morbid curiosity by some can end up transformed into a deadly training tool or incitement meme that can play a role in fueling the next mass shooting.