A mass shooting at a Maryland newspaper raised questions about comments made in recent days threatening journalists.
Anne Arundel County police were called to the newsroom of the Annapolis-based Capital Gazette, a more-than-a-century-old newspaper at 888 Bestgate Road. Authorities took Jarrod Ramos, 38 — the lone suspect — into custody for allegedly killing five people and wounding several others in a 28 June 2018 shooting spree. Capital crime reporter Phil Davis reported the gunman shot through the newspaper's glass door and "opened fire on multiple employees. Can't say much more and don't want to declare anyone dead, but it's bad." He said he heard the shooter reload.
A man with the same name had unsuccessfully sued the paper for defamation over a story that reported he had stalked a woman online; he ended up pleading guilty for criminal harassment as a result. He also for years apparently used a Twitter account to post threatening messages about the Capital and its then-staffer that wrote the 2011 story, along with people involved with the case. He also posted violent imagery and called the 2015 shooting of cartoonists at the French publication Charlie Hebdo a "funny thing."
The massacre also came on the heels of a comment made by Milo Yiannopoulos, a blogger for the conspiracy trolling site InfoWars who had told several reporters two days earlier, "I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight." The day before the shooting, BuzzFeed journalist Joe Bernstein reported that a reader told him they had tried to report an Instagram post made by Yiannopoulos saying the same thing, but the platform responded to the complaint saying that the post didn't violate its terms:
— Joe Bernstein (@Bernstein) June 27, 2018
We reached out to Instagram and its parent company Facebook with a question about the post and were told it was taken down on the morning 27 June 2018.
Meantime social media users also pointed to posts on the message boards 4chan and 8chan that seemed to celebrate the attack and even encourage future ones:
We reached out to 4chan for comment and received no response.
The white supremacist site Daily Stormer also posted a story praising Yiannopoulos's comments one day before the massacre:
United States President Donald Trump, who has a pattern of attacking the news media in speeches, at rallies and on social media, took to Twitter to offer "thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families." NBC News posted video showing him appearing to ignore reporters' questions about it:
"Can you please talk to us about the dead reporters in Annapolis?"
“Do you have any words of condolence for the families, Mr. President?”
"Why are you walking away?"
— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 28, 2018
The New York Police Department sent officers to guard newsrooms in the city:
— Michael George (@mgeorge4NY) June 28, 2018
— Andy Campbell (@AndyBCampbell) June 28, 2018
Jared Yates Sexton, a journalist and associated professor in writing at Georgia Southern University, told us the the police presence after the newsroom attack could have been a response to the environment of animosity toward journalists created, in part, by an online trope known as the "Night of Rope" — a scene from a white supremacist publication known as The Turner Diaries. In the scene, journalists, "race traitors," professors and other cultural figures are dragged into the street and hanged in public. The book apparently inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Sexton, who researches far-right extremism online, said regardless of what Ramos's alleged motives may have been, he fears that the massacre could trigger copycats lurking in the dark corners of the web to act:
They’ve got journalists' addresses, phone numbers, they talk about journalist routines. I’ve seen pictures of my own house. These people, whether they end up acting on these ideas and philosophies, they want to and they intend to. We’ve made this big mistake in that we tend to see these as lone wolf attacks, but it's part of this larger problem.
Everyone wants to pretend they're just trolls, that they're not serious, but they are. They're deadly serious. And the longer we pretend like there's not a developing, festering problem, the longer we allow it to grow in power.
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) June 28, 2018