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The racist conspiracy theory behind the El Paso shooting

Experts believe that the 'Great Replacement' theory is one of the fastest growing far-right beliefs. It began in Europe, but echoes of it can be heard in the current conservative political discourse in the United States, including statements and tweets by President Donald Trump.
11 Ago 2019 – 11:06 AM EDT
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In this Aug. 12, 2019 photo, mourners visit the makeshift memorial near the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed in a mass shooting that police are investigating as a terrorist attack targeting Latinos. Crédito: Cedar Attanasio/AP

The young man who killed 22 people with an AK-47 assault rifle in El Paso last weekend is suspected of being the author of a document posted online in which he advocated a racist conspiracy theory known as the ‘Great Replacement,’ a reference to white nationalist fears of an “invasion” by non-white immigrants.

The 2,000-word manifesto drew inspiration from previous terror attacks, including a deaths of 51 Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand in March, the author of which also cited the ‘Great Replacement’ theory.

The replacement conspiracy, which only recently gained attention in the United States, dates back less than a decade and has its roots in Europe, though it draws on age-old xenophobia. But experts consider it to be one of the fastest-growing, and dangerous doctrines in extreme, far right thinking.

“It came to our attention initially when we started hearing white supremacists using the term ‘You will not replace us,’” said Marilyn Mayo, director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), one of the oldest anti-hate groups in the United States.

That was shortly before the now infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, that included members of the so-called alt-right movement as well as neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

While Trump has never used the term ‘Great Replacement,’ he and some Fox News commentators have come close, critics say, referring to “demographic replacement” and the “invasion” of immigrants. Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Tuesday claimed there is no white supremacy problem in the United States, adding that it's a hoax created by the media and the left. “The whole thing is a lie,” said Carlson. “It’s actually not a real problem in America.”

While Trump has not spefically promoted the theory, Mayo and others say his harsh words about immigrants have created a permissive atmosphere that allows extremism to flourish. “I think he and other figures on the far right are promoting anti-immigrant rhetoric and they are demonizing immigrants in such a way that it’s giving more permission for people with more extreme ideas to come out and believe that there’s support for their ideas,” she said.

“It’s a certain environment that’s created, that says immigrants are criminals, they are going to bring destruction to our country because of their culture and their different ways and they can’t assimilate,” she added.

Advocates of the theory point to demographic shifts that have seen once ethnically white populations becoming minority groups in some areas of the world. “They basically believe that white, Europeans are being replaced by non-whites,” said Mayo.

In Europe, proponents of the replacement theory focus on Muslims from Africa and the Middle East who are typically singled out as being culturally incompatible with the white population, said Mayo. “In the U.S. they focus more on the Latino population,” she said. Anti-Semites also often hold people of Jewish faith responsible also for the perceived dilution of the white race. During the Charlottesville rally protestors chanted “Jews will not replace us,” though Mayo said the replacement theory is more focused on newer, non-white migration from Latin America.

“They are not entirely averse to immigration, if it’s the right kind,” Mayo said, explaining that white European immigrants were not considered a threat. She highlighted a now famous outburst by Trump at the White House in January 2018 when he reportedly referred to Haiti and countries in Africa as “shithole countries”, adding “we should have more people from Norway.”

French author coined term

The man behind the ‘Great Replacement’ theory is Renaud Camus, a French philosopher and writer who coined the term in a 2011 book entitled Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement). Since then, he has become one of the most influential ideologues of the Identitarian Movement, founded in 2003 in the south of France, also known Generation Identity, a white nativist group that advocates an ethnically and culturally homogenous Europe, according to a 2019 study Julia Ebner and Jacob Davey, two researchers specializing in far-right extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD),a London-based think tank.

Camus participated in elections for the European parliament for the AntiReplacement party, and his mantra has also been taken up by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party which believes German culture is under threat from it sees as a creeping Islamization after the country welcomed about a million asylum seekers during the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015.

“Politicians and political commentators have been key in mainstreaming the Great Replacement narrative by making explicit and implicit references to the conspiracy theory in their speeches, social media posts and policies,” the ISD report found.

Generation Identity

“Generation Identity is one of Europe’s fastest growing far-right movements,” since it was founded in southern France in 2003, the ISD report found, while its supporters promote existential threats to white citizens, quoting alleging that immigrants are responsible for higher violent crime rates, including rape, and loss of jobs. Believers in the replacement theory also highlight demographic statistics, including falling white birth rates and larger Hispanic families, said Mayo.

“While Generation Identity groups and members do not openly call for or support violence, the Great Replacement theory clearly underpins their messaging and their call is for remigration – a euphemism for what is the forced repatriation of migrant communities, or a form of non-violent ethnic cleansing of Europe,” it added.

ISD identified 70,000 followers of official Generation Identity accounts on Twitter, 11,000 members of Facebook groups, and 140,000 subscribers on YouTube. “We identified around 1.5 million tweets referencing the Great Replacement theory between April 2012 and April 2019 in English, French and German language. The volume of tweets steadily increased in the seven years leading up to the Christchurch (New Zealand) attack, with the number of tweets mentioning the theory nearly tripling in four years from just over 120,000 in 2014 to just over 330,000 in 2018,” it found.

French accounts dominated online conversation around the theory.

Theory spreading

However, the theory is becoming more prevalent internationally with English speaking countries accounting for 32.76% of online discussion around it, ISD found. “Extreme-right communities use a range of methods to broadcast the Great Replacement theory, including dehumanizing racist memes, distorting and misrepresenting demographic data, and using debunked science. Great Replacement propagandists have found ways to co-opt the grievances of different fringe communities on the internet by connecting anti-migration, anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), anti-abortion and anti-establishment narratives,” the authors wrote.

In the El Paso manifesto, the writer states “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas … I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

He argues that the United States should be divided “into a confederacy of territories with at least one territory for each race” to eliminate race mixing and improve social unity. He also opposes “race mixing” arguing that it destroys genetic diversity and creates identity problems … Cultural diversity diminishes as stronger and/or more appealing cultures overtake weaker and/or desirable ones.”

US slow to respond

The ISD report warned that legislators have been slow to wake up to the threat posed by the extreme-right. “Crucially, the United States is currently limited in its domestic response to extreme-right terror; a policy failure with far-reaching consequences, including shaping the agenda of predominantly US-based social media platforms,” it said. Researchers say websites like 8chan, its cousin 4chan and social networks like Reddit, Gab, Twitter and YouTube are being used to spread white supremacy and other forms of hate.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, 8chan lost access to the internet after a series of companies, starting with security platform Cloudflare, decided to stop working with the site. The El Paso shooter is believed to have uploaded his hate-filled manifesto to 8chan just before his attack. The New Zealand mosque shooter another who attacked a California synagogue in April posted their manifestos to 8chan as well.

“Although major platforms have introduced some voluntary measures to counter white nationalist and white supremacist content, many of the fringe platforms frequented by the extreme-right use free speech and libertarian arguments as the baseline for their policies. This wider technological ecosystem must be addressed by policy makers if the challenges faced are to be addressed successfully,” according to the ISD authors.