Less than two hours before one person was killed in a shooting in a Southern California synagogue on Saturday, a post appeared on the anonymous message board 8chan linking to a violently anti-Semitic “open letter” and a Facebook page. The post, claiming to be from the 19-year-old suspected shooter, promised a video of the violence would be aired live on Facebook. The attack in Poway, California, about 25 miles north of San Diego, comes less than two months after another shooter posted a violent manifesto loaded with anti-Muslim hate speech before using Facebook to live-stream his killing of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. It also comes six months after a shooter announced “I’m going in” on the social network Gab, a favorite of the fringe-right, before killing 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The Facebook page linked in the 8chan post has since been disabled, but the letter has been reproduced on the text storage site Pastebin. The Pastebin link circulated on Twitter for hours after the shooting and was shared nearly 100 times before Twitter blocked the link. The letter is rife with references to memes and fringe-right anti-Semitic internet culture, and the author claims to have been responsible for an arson at a mosque in Escondido, California, one month prior. It also contains specific instructions for spreading the news of his shooting and calls for others to commit more violent hate crimes. Though the 8chan post claims the shooting was going to be live streamed, a video does not appear to be circulating.
The unverified open letter is being investigated “to determine the legitimacy of it and exactly how it plays into the investigation,” San Diego Sheriff William Gore said at a news conference.
“The San Diego Synagogue shooting in Poway, California was perpetrated by someone inspired by the New Zealand terrorist attack and used a similar digital media strategy to push his own narrative of hate,” Benjamin Decker, who runs the media and tech investigations consultancy Memetica, wrote on Twitter. That formula, according to Decker, starts with posting a letter of intent on an unmoderated site like Pastebin then distributing it on an anonymous message board like 4chan or 8chan, which are popular forums for online hate. That post may also include a link to a Facebook page, where the violence could be live streamed. People who see the posts then duplicate and distribute the manifesto and the video, if one is made, to more popular social network sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Discord.
Twitter and Facebook appear to be scrubbing links to the open letter. However, a link to the manifesto was easily found when searching for key details about the shooting on YouTube. According to the site, the video has since been removed for not adhering to its community guidelines.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said during a press conference that the suspect was taken into custody after he was apprehended on the freeway, jumped out of the car, and put his hands up. The attack occurred on the final day of Passover. Steve Vaus, the mayor of Poway, told reporters that “it was a hate crime, and that will not stand,” without elaborating further. But as with other recent shootings, hateful online forums appear to be a breeding ground for inspiring acts of violence.
“Once again, a young white male has apparently been influenced by dangerous online white supremacist propaganda. And once again, we see how this propaganda can lead to terrorist acts,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement.
And if the manifesto does belong to the alleged Poway shooter, posting one’s intention to commit a violent hate crime on social media shortly before doing it appears to be turning into a playbook for when hate online turns deadly.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.