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The Christchurch Shooter and the Distorting Power of the Internet

Coverage of the New Zealand massacre has focused on its perpetrator’s ties to extremist internet forums. What, if anything, can we learn from those connections?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, 49 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were massacred in an attack captured on video by the gunman. Brenton H. Tarrant, an Australian white nationalist, has been arrested and charged with murder.

The shooter livestreamed the attack on Facebook, sharing 17 minutes of high-definition video footage from a camera mounted in first-person perspective overlooking his shotgun and rifles; he seems to have styled the video to resemble a modern first-person shooter video game. Hours before the incident, Tarrant shared his white nationalist manifesto on 8chan and invited the website’s users to watch the livestream.

Many users on 8chan—a popular website where many right-wing users discuss “white genocide,” among other apocalyptic concerns—celebrated Tarrant before and after the massacre. The website is currently flooded with links to video footage of the massacre, hagiography about Tarrant, and pleas for copycat shooters to join Tarrant’s cause.

Friday was hardly the first time that 8chan, 4chan, and other web forums have celebrated deadly right-wing violence against unarmed civilians. In general, “chan” culture hosts a bewildering mix of violent extremism and playful pretense. 8chan is currently embracing Tarrant while denying responsibility for encouraging the violence. 8chan is a “free speech” haven. It’s also a bunker for reactionaries such as Brenton Tarrant.

Tarrant revealed himself to the world as a digital specter. Two Ringer staff writers, Justin Charity and Kate Knibbs, cohosts of the Damage Control podcast, discuss the online elements of Tarrant’s radicalization.

Charity: The 8chan megathread about the massacre describes Brenton Tarrant as an “Australian shitposter”—a mere troll, in other words. It’s written as a compliment. It’s the sort of compliment that gets me thinking about the distinction between traditional extremism and online extremism, the latter so largely defined by irony.

Knibbs: You bring up a distinction between online and traditional extremism, but I am not sure there is a meaningful difference. We should absolutely interrogate how major social media companies have made it easy for terrorist and hate groups to use their services to recruit new followers and spread propaganda. We also have to understand this as part of an old problem—ethno-nationalist terrorism—and not something new, just as the July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway, in which the killer also used the internet to spread a hateful manifesto and talk to like-minded bigots, was also inspired by and part of a horrible lineage of right-wing ethno-nationalist thought. I’ve been taken aback by how much of the coverage of this event has focused on the shooter’s fluency in memes and the irony-heavy vernacular of online forums. How do you think the shooter’s online presence set this attack apart?

Charity: For one, the style. Tarrant isn’t the first terrorist to go through the all-too-familiar motions—the manifesto, the sign-off, the body cam—but he was so exceptionally mindful of his production quality. I don’t recommend watching (much less, spreading) Tarrant’s footage, but the way he styles his camera and his guns, coupled with the tropes in his manifesto, distinguish Tarrant, in my mind, as distinctly chan-aligned. 4chan, 8chan—these places are right-wing gamer havens. And I cannot watch Tarrant’s footage without thinking of the camera style of modern first-person shooters. I concede that Tarrant’s manifesto is classic reactionary gibberish, but he didn’t just run to 8chan arbitrarily. It’s his safe space.

You mention the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway, where Anders Breivik slaughtered 77 people. In fact, 8chan users have already begun comparing Tarrant and Breivik, with many criticizing Breivik for having targeted white children who were, potentially, redeemable. Tarrant killed Muslims living in a supposedly white country. Much of 8chan shares Tarrant’s outlook on immigration, if not his capacity for violence.

Knibbs: I agree that the choice of 8chan was not arbitrary—he went where he felt welcome. What I take issue with is all the attention to the Extremely Online-ness of the shooter. It seems like misdirected energy to try to decipher his shitposts. The shooter’s choices to model his livestream after first-person shooter video games and to reference YouTubers and memes shows us that he was a digital native who used the internet to communicate and learn, but I don’t think it makes him a new breed of terrorist.

That said, I do hope this starts a more urgent conversation about how forums like 8chan and Gab are providing havens—a “safe space” as you called it—for extremist thought. This is another awful demonstration of how bigots can find supporters and community in pockets of the internet that allow racist subcultures to flourish. We should certainly be talking about the internet as a conduit for Islamophobia, and taking online radicalization seriously. The fact that the shooter’s video appeared in Twitter’s trending topics is another grim example of how incompetent the social networks are at addressing how they’re used to spread hate. I’m curious: If you were in charge of the social networks, how would you respond to this?

Charity: It seems like in mainstream media we’re always struggling to settle upon the “best practices” for covering spectacular violence carried out by wannabe martyrs. The best practices never feel quite right or finalized. I’d certainly advise against contextualizing the unedited, uncensored footage of a shooting spree as just another viral video.

I take your points about overthinking the shooter’s motivations and style as modern developments. Again, I read Tarrant’s manifesto as grim clichés that illuminate nothing. I don’t think it’s important to read 8chan to understand Tarrant. I do think it’s important to read 8chan to understand the distinct culture that informs and very explicitly encourages right-wing terrorism, while also retreating behind the rules of stand-up comedy and mainstream grievances about “political correctness.” It bugs me to no end that 4chan and, worse yet, 8chan are supposedly “fringe” websites that nonetheless share 90 percent of their political outlook with the most prominent conservatives in American politics. The mischievous, “ironic” pretense of chan culture blurs the distinction between trolling and violence, between edgelords and murderers, like nothing else at its scale. Of course, these websites encourage their critics to overestimate them: their design prioritizes anonymity, which obscures specific users, specific allegiances, and the size of any given chan community. I think that’s the innovation we’re confronting here. 8chan is, by design, an ambiguous disaster.

Knibbs: I saw something earlier that speaks to your point about how much these supposedly fringe ideas are actually quite firmly embedded in society. An Australian senator responded to the attack by claiming that the real cause of the violence was allowing Muslims to immigrate. America has openly racist and Islamophobic politicians, too. The rise of right-wing extremism has not been confined to the internet.

And we’ve seen several recent examples of far-right extremist narratives migrating from the forums to cable news, local news, the most main of the mainstream media. Terrorists and mass murderers have wanted to propagate their ideas to wide audiences long before the internet existed—manifestos are meant for the masses—and the internet has opened up many routes to spread hateful ideology from subcultures to general audiences. A 2017 report by the Data & Society research institute outlined ethno-nationalist hate groups’ effectiveness at manipulating coverage and pushing ideas from neo-Nazi websites to “normie” publications. The 2016 spread of the conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate,” which originated in the chan subculture but gained so much traction that it spawned real-life protests of an imaginary crime, is an example of this type of movement. It is also another reminder that the boundary between “internet culture” and real life is porous, if not altogether artificial. I think we’re both in agreement that treating this attack like an anomaly that came from the edge of society is a misstep. The shooter wasn’t able to use the social internet as an instrument to spread terror because he was an outsider; his virality was the result of an old infection.