The Use of Heuristics in the Buffalo Shooter’s Manifesto

By Michael Waltman

The purpose of this entry is to describe how the nature of hate speech contributes to violence and extremism in a way that would be helpful to those who would study and oppose violent extremism. I have studied the social and political uses of hate speech since 2003. Hate speech is discourse directed at the vandalizing of an outgroup identity based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, (and increasingly, political identity). Logically, one must be constructed as worthy of killing before they may be killed. This radicalizing rhetoric has also been linked to the production of collective forms of memory, recruitment into hate groups or on-line discussions of hate, the socializing of people into on-line groups (or local groups), the encouragement of hate crimes, and the promotion of violence. Hate speech is nothing like the ideal of persuasion in which people approach one another to express themselves and engage in the mutual attempt to be understood and to understand one another. In such an ideal, people would be influenced by the gentle pressure of the better idea. Hate speech relies on people’s prejudices and fears. It seeks to trick, to disinform, to lie, and to encourage superficial forms of information processing.

What are Heuristics? 

As such, hatred is studied as a variety of constructs in Communication and allied disciplines (e.g., narratives, mythologies, stratagems, and heuristics). Heuristics have been studied by scholars as an important part of human information processing for years. Tversky and Kahneman treated heuristics as a cognitive shortcut that people employ to escape the burden of decision making in a complicated social environment. Their early work focused on the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic suggested that human information processors were more likely to use information that they had recently used or that they used on a frequent basis. In other words, information that was more accessible in memory and appears to be useful would be used more frequently than other information. For example, one who employs the category “hostile” to describe someone’s behavior, when faced with behavior that has the potential to be described as hostile as opposed to something like “asserting their position” or “sticking up for their rights.”

Petty and Cacioppo argued that when given sufficient knowledge and motivation, people process persuasive messages contemplatively and evaluate the message in terms of the strength of the argument or the quality of the persuasive message. Alternatively, when people lack sufficient knowledge and motivation, they are likely to process the message more superficially and attend to information outside the substantive message. Petty and Cacciopo report that such persuadees rely on: (a) Credibility heuristic (I should comply with this persuasive request because the message producer is a trustworthy expert), (b) Consensus heuristic (I should comply with this request because many people are complying with this request), and (c) liking heuristic (I should comply with this request because I like the message producer).

Kahneman and Tversky’s and Petty and Caccioppo’s treatment of people’s use of heuristics focuses on how people use heuristics, on their own accord, when faced with circumstances that might overwhelm their perceptual abilities. Robert Cialdini examined a range of heuristics that unscrupulous message producers use to encourage people to rely on heuristics to influence them. Like Petty and Caccioppo, he discusses research that examines how people may be influenced by the authority of the message producer (authority heuristic), what they have done in the past (consistency and commitment heuristic), the behavior of others (social proof heuristic), the scarcity of a resource offered by the persuader (I should comply because this resource may not be available to me in the future), the likeability heuristic (I should comply with this request because it is made by someone I like or who seems likeable). Cialdini’s research program is extensive. The list of heuristics he has examined can be found here.

The Buffalo Shooter

My early close reading of the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto reveals that he attempts to manipulate reader’s perceptions of his credibility, the consensus of his beliefs, his likeability, his authority and expert knowledge. In brief, he attempts to encourage the superficial processing of his persuasive message. This is consistent with other features of hate. Waltman describes hate speech as a stratagem or a “trick” to compel compliance with no regard for truth or concern for the persuadee. The ultimate goal of this research is to determine if certain heuristics may dove-tail to form a hate stratagem that many readers of this manifesto will find compelling. This will contribute to an understanding of the persuasive uses of hate speech to radicalize and influence others to commit violence.


Learning about how people are persuaded to violence may contribute to our understanding of how to counter hate. People are drawn to heuristics because they lack the knowledge, ability, and/or motivation to process information in hateful messages in sophisticated ways. Therefore, messages intended to counter hate that focus on reasoning and argumentation may not be successful. There are instances of people leaving the hate movement because they understand that participating in the movement has not been great for them and they fear what their children may be learning from them. Fear for your children does not require one to think deeply about hate or to understand the social conditions that give rise to scapegoating.

Michael Waltman (PhD) is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina. His
research examines the social and political uses of hate speech. His research typically examines texts that
are important to the formation of identity for specific groups.

Image Credit: Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA / Pexels

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