Nation/World

Just before Buffalo shooting, 15 users signed into suspect’s chatroom, says person familiar with review

An online chatroom invitation sent shortly before the Buffalo supermarket shooting by alleged gunman Payton Gendron was accepted by 15 users, according to a person with knowledge of the messaging platform Discord’s investigation into the matter. When the 15 accepted the invite to that server, they were able to scroll back through months of Gendron’s voluminous writings and racist screeds.

A copy of an invitation from Gendron reviewed by The Washington Post said Discord users who clicked through to the room also could view an online video stream, where footage of the Buffalo attack on Saturday was broadcast, raising the possibility more people saw the shootings as they happened than was previously known.

Investigators at the messaging platform are sifting through data relating to Gendron’s account to decipher the accused shooter’s network, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters also being examined by law enforcement.

Discord has said it disabled Gendron’s chatroom after the shooting, which killed 10 people and injured three at a Tops supermarket, but has declined to say how it learned of the chatroom’s connection to the attack.

A Discord spokesperson declined to comment on the finding that 15 people accepted the invitation. The spokesperson referred The Post to a statement issued Wednesday that said the company was assisting law enforcement. “Hate has no place on Discord and we are committed to combating violence and extremism,” the spokesperson said.

The new finding on Gendron’s alleged use of online networks to transmit footage of the killings, and to disseminate propaganda seeking to justify them, illustrates how social media companies have been unable to stop their platforms being exploited to spread terror despite promises to do so.

Gendron, an 18-year-old from Conklin, N.Y., has pleaded not guilty to murder after being arrested at the scene of the killings. About half an hour before the shootings, according to Discord, Gendron’s account shared an invitation with other users on the platform, which allows direct messaging and group discussion in private rooms known as servers that require an invite.

A copy of an invitation later posted online by one recipient features a link to Gendron’s private Discord server, where he had for six months been compiling hundreds of postings that included racist screeds and explicit details of his plan for the shooting of Black people at the store in Buffalo. The messages were written by an author who identified himself as Gendron, a review by The Post found.

Gendron, a White man, cited a racist theory that non-Whites were brought to the United States to replace White people for political purposes. Eleven of the 13 people shot at the supermarket were Black, police have said.

It is unclear whether Discord can determine exactly what the 15 people did after they accepted the invitation to the private server, according to the person familiar with the matter. But their connection to the account could help law enforcement understand whether the accused shooter acted alone or was supported by online acquaintances, the person said.

The invitation, headed “Happening: This is not a drill,” also included a separate link to an account on the video streaming service Twitch, where Gendron allegedly broadcast video of his attack from a camera mounted on his military-style helmet. Twitch has said that 22 people watched and that the firm disabled the stream within two minutes of the first gunshot. But some viewers saved copies that have since spread online. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.)

It is not clear how much overlap there is between the 15 people on the Discord channel and the 22 previously known Twitch viewers. Users who saw Gendron’s Discord invitation could have clicked through to the Twitch stream without joining his Discord server, or could have done both, the copy of the invitation shows.

The invitation said people could also view Gendron’s video stream within his Discord server. One version of the attack video circulating online indicates that the viewer who saved it was watching a stream of Gendron’s home computer screen, which was in turn displaying the live attack video. Gendron described plans for such a setup in writings before the attack. Viewers watching the video through that path may have been in addition to the 22 watching directly on Twitch.

Discord has declined to say how many people had access to Gendron’s invitation. In his writings before the attack, he wrote that he intended to share it with everyone on his Discord friends list, each Discord server he belonged to and on message boards unrelated to Discord that feature extremist content. The invitation also included separate links to copies of his writings at file-sharing websites.

Created in 2015, Discord is a chat app that offers added features such as collaboration between groups using voice, video or screen sharing. Discord is divided into groups called servers and within servers there are channels. Servers can be public or made private, requiring an invitation to view the content.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said Wednesday that her office was investigating Discord, Twitch and other platforms in connection with the Buffalo shooting. A statement issued by her office said that it would examine online networks that the shooter used to amplify his attack.

“The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable,” James said.

Instead of relying on advertisements, Discord offers premium memberships that users can pay for to enable advanced features. The business model means that it collects less information than social media companies on user activities and that Discord typically is not aware of how many views a particular piece of content received.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officials could use the company’s metadata in conjunction with other information to try to decipher a person’s identity, and anyone with connections to the shooter.

Charles Finfrock, who has conducted internal investigations at technology companies like Tesla and runs an investigations firm called Vigilance, said it is difficult to discern the true identity of a Discord user, but law enforcement officials may be able to use indicators like IP addresses, the types of computers used and whether individuals accessed the service via online or through a mobile app to elicit useful information in the ongoing criminal investigation.

“One of the first things you would do in a case like this is look at all his social media channels and messaging applications and try to identify like-minded people,” he said.

Discord scans its service for indications of policy violations, according to the investigative procedures listed on the company website, but does not scan the content of private messages unless it is first alerted to violations, its policy says. Because Gendron was the only member of his private server until just before the shooting, according to Discord, other users could not see or flag troubling content he was posting there.

Discord previously has dealt with the use of its service to plan criminal activity. Organizers of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 Charlottesville used Discord to the plan the white supremacist rally that ended in violence.

That incident prompted the company to announce changes to its platform and that it would begin scanning the service for activity that might be illegal or violate the company’s terms of service. Before Charlottesville, the “Trust and Safety” team at Discord consisted of one person, according to the company website. Now, that team makes up 15% of its 400 employees.

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The Washington Post’s Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.

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