In fact it already has. But the next time it happens it’ll be here.
The path toward murder began in Moragahamula, in the Kandy District of the Central Province of Sri Lanka. There, in early March, a group of Muslim men attacked a truck driver over what a local report described as a “road rage incident.” Buddhist monks and Sinhalese Sri Lankans then went on a rampage, burning shops and attacking Muslims, allegedly while the local police looked on, doing nothing.
Then came the gasoline. False reports of further attacks by Muslims as well as inflammatory hate speech flooded Facebook, prompting the Sri Lankan government to shut the website down as mobs burned and looted in Muslim areas across the country. When the smoke cleared, Abdul Basith was dead inside a burned-out building.
It is impossible to know whether Basith would have died just the same had Facebook not been shut down, that the mobs who came for him were coming anyway. What we do know is that the Sri Lankan government was so concerned about Facebook’s ability to incite people that it blocked access to the website as it sought to gain control of the situation. And Sri Lanka isn’t alone from experiencing the horrific power of Facebook’s capacity to goad people into a frenzy.
In Myanmar, anti-Muslim figures regularly post hate speech that portrays the Rohingya minority as “aggressive outsiders,” as well as false information about Rohingya burning their own homes, a government line that has been used to cover up what the United Nations calls “genocide.”
The events in Sri Lanka and Myanmar prompted much reporting and hand-wringing about Facebook’s ability to incite violence. But much of that was framed by the relative instability — compared to the United States — of those two countries. That couldn’t happen here, the thinking goes. Here, most of the concern about Facebook is not its propagation of dangerous hate speech but its failure to stop the spread of Russian-backed “fake news” during the 2016 election.
I think that should change.
My reporting over the weekend — which uncovered more than 100 instances of Americans calling for violence against migrants and others — filled me with great concern. (After all, these were public posts. God only knows what Facebook itself can see behind billions of peoples’ privacy settings.) I think it’s entirely possible that someone will become radicalized due to the echo chamber of their own making on Facebook. The terrible event will likely come in the form of a mass shooting and the shooter will have acted alone. He will have spent months or years consuming false or misleading news stories, memes and propaganda curated expertly by Facebook’s algorithm that amplified his echo chamber. As he became more and more radical and blocked moderate friends who protested his increasingly hostile rhetoric, he became even more fervent in his beliefs.
By the time he acts, his Facebook profile will look like the outside of Cesar Sayoc’s van.
Facebook has become a “radicalization engine,” a friend told me, coining what may become a term of historical accuracy and significance. Over and over again these past few days as I’ve scoured Facebook for instances of people calling for violence against migrants and other minority groups, I’ve identified a profile fit for radicalization.
The user is an older, white American. His online life appears to largely consist of Facebook considering he posts more than a dozen times each day. This means his primary news source appears to be Facebook, where he has siloed himself in a cocoon of right-wing, far-right and often completely fake news sites. He constantly shares stories and memes that show him a world that is changing rapidly — and not for the good.
He consumes large quantities of news about crimes committed by illegal immigrants, the War on Christmas, NFL protests, Benghazi, Muslims saying all women who don’t convert to Islam should be raped, pro-gun control comments from politicians and celebrities, fear-mongering stories about parents with transgendered children, photos of disabled veterans who have not received benefits next to illegal immigrants who have. One day he’ll post a meme inviting his friends to flood Facebook with a gif an American flag to show their patriotism, the next he’ll share a post that contains a burning Koran with the text, “90 percent won’t have the guts to share this. Do you?”
A Fox News story about two women kissing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will prompt him to write, “piss on queers.”
An illegal immigrant somewhere raped a little girl. The story is two years old.
A meme about running over protesters. “LOL”
A photo of a handgun atop the Bible. “From my cold, dead hands.”
Make America Great Again is not just a campaign slogan now. It’s a call to arms.
Over at one of the many Trump fan pages, 22,000 people have gleefully expressed their support for the president’s decision to authorize lethal force at the border.
“Yes cause they are being paid to invade America and kill and destroy. Protect us President Trump Please Thank you,” writes a woman who looks like someone’s grandma. Her profile picture is of her chubby face, wearing glasses. She’s used an app to surround herself with digital garland and lights. “Merry Christmas,” it says in cursive script.
“A famous (or infamous) person once said something like, shoot one and teach a thousand a lesson,” wrote one man.
“Yes, what ever it takes to keep them out of America,” wrote a woman.
“Hell yes….he needs to send fully armed Apache helicopters down there with orders to use lethal force,” wrote a man with white hair and glasses who lives in Elkland, Maryland.
None of this violates Facebook’s terms of service or goes against its community standards.
I know because I asked them.
Many of the people whose profiles I encountered lived in or near their hometowns. Many of them were devout Christians and proud gun owners. At least a couple of them said they didn’t really mean it when they said migrants should be shot.
Donald Christianson, pictured above, falls into the radicalization profile of an angry, frustrated white man who constantly posts right wing propaganda, minus the presence of guns.
“I’m not saying I’m gonna shoot anyone, I said someone should,” he told me Sunday night from his home in Spokane, Washington.
I’d commented on one of Donald’s posts over the weekend, asking if he’d talk to me for the Beast story on people advocating to shoot migrants. He called me late Sunday night as my editor and I were finishing up the piece. That day he’d been kicked off Facebook, and I asked him which of his many posts about shooting people had finally done him in.
“It was the one about ‘shoot that traitorous bitch,’” he told me, referencing a post he’d written about Brenda Snipes, a Florida elections supervisor who has become a favorite target of the right over alleged voter fraud. “And the one about John Kerry,” he added, mentioning a post I hadn’t found, despite scrolling through his entirely open timeline for the last several days.
“I just look at what you’re supposed to do with traitors. They should be shot,” he said of people like Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton, among others. “The Marines, the Secret Service, ICE… somebody should take care of this.”
I asked Donald Christianson if he was the same Donald Christianson I’d found through court records who had had an order of protection filed against him. He confirmed that was him. What the Spokane County clerk’s office had told me was a “vulnerable adult” who’d filed for the order, Donald said was a “crazy” ex-girlfriend who had guns. He said he beat the order and it was never initiated.
“I’m not a threat to anybody,” he said. “Just an old crippled guy who’s been skiing like a madman and dirt-biking.”
This is the second time Donald has been temporarily blocked from Facebook. The first came three or four months back when he wrote about Muslims.
“Some Muslims made some cracks about American men and I wrote ‘fuck Islam, fuck Muslims and fuck that pig fucking heap of shit Muhammad’ and — wham 30 days!” he said, laughing.
“They kicked me off for 30 days and I just laugh about it. Sometimes I’ll say something just to see if they kick me off. You get kicked off for saying some shit about Muslims but you can say whatever you want about Christians.”
I ask him who else he considers traitors.
Maxine Waters and Elizabeth Warren, he says.
“I just saw this morning that Waters had said she wanted to behead President Trump.”
“That doesn’t sound right, I highly doubt she said that. Where’d you see that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I can’t remember. But I definitely saw it.”
Then Donald just goes. “I hope you’ve got a recorder on,” he tells me. I tell him I can type real fast.
“Everybody in Washington, they’ve totally sold us out from one end of the other.”
“Trump is no saint but he’s the greatest thing to happen to this country since Kennedy. You can’t buy him. He beat them at their own game!”
“I’ve always been a little bit of a rebel anyway. I look at it like the country is not being run for or by the people at all!”
“They’re invaders as far as I’m concerned. You wanna come in legally I got no problem with that. I’m not a heartless sonofabitch. But comin’ here isn’t gonna solve the problems in their countries that they’re runnin’ away from. Why don’t they stand and fight to fix their countries. That’s what my ancestors had to do here!”
After a few failed attempts to cut him off I’m finally able to tell Donald I have to run. I’m on deadline but I’d love to talk to him again. He tells me about some business he runs where he makes “van cats,” and from looking at his profile I know he means 4x4 vans that can get through snowy mountain passes in Washington state.
He wants me to know one last thing about his posts about shooting traitors.
“That post where I said shoot John Kerry had 711 likes in eight hours.”