The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why social media and terrorism make a perfect fit

People write condolence messages to the victims of a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, during a candlelight vigil outside the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels on Friday. (Laurie Dieffembacq/AFP/Getty Images)

The livestreamed slaughter of 49 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has shined a spotlight on how terrorists employ social media. As The Post noted on Friday: “The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit.”

This is horrifying but not surprising. Terrorism is inconceivable without mass media. Terrorists, after all, typically operate by themselves or in small groups. (The Islamic State is one of the few exceptions: It had grown into a quasi-state before being reduced to its terrorist roots.) They cannot hope to defeat their enemy — a powerful nation state — by brute force. They can only hope that acts of violence will call attention to their grievances and possibly generate such a powerful backlash that the resulting repression will drive more recruits into their ranks. This is why anarchists referred to their attacks as “propaganda by the deed.”

In my book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” I noted that the rise of terrorism in the 19th century was rooted in four phenomena: First, “destructive and portable weaponry,” such as dynamite and the breach-loading pistols. Second, the growth of mass media — first, cheap, mass-circulation newspapers and magazines produced on Linotype machines and later radio, movies and television. Third, the spread of literacy made possible by the expansion of public education and the establishment of universities where students were often radicalized. And, fourth, the rise of secular ideologies such as Marxism, anarchism, nationalism and fascism that inspired so much bloodletting.

The anarchists arose in the late 19th century when all of these trends reached a critical mass. In hindsight, most of their outrages seem relatively tame — one particularly notorious bombing at a cafe in Paris in 1894 killed only one person. Like a junkie needing ever-higher doses, we have become so habituated to terrorist attacks that they must have a far greater body count to grab our attention. Terrorists were more novel and, therefore, more terrifying around the fin de siècle. President Theodore Roosevelt even said in 1908 that “when compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.”

The anarchists were eventually suppressed, but new terrorist groups arose to take their place. The 1960s and 1970s saw a wave of Marxist and nationalist terrorism associated with organizations such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weather Underground and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Aside from a devotion to violence, all these groups shared a certain skill in exploiting the mass media of their day.

The Palestinians brought terrorism into the television age: the hostage-taking at the Munich Olympics in 1972 would remain the best-known act of terrorism until Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorist leaders Carlos the Jackal, Abu Nidal and Yasser Arafat became global celebrities. Their notoriety was finally eclipsed by Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq (which morphed into the Islamic State), took butchery to another horrifying level by slaughtering tens of thousands of Shiites in Iraq. Unlike bin Laden, Zarqawi did not sit for TV interviews, but he and his fanatical followers were brazen and skilled at publicizing their attacks by spreading manifestos, pictures and videos via text messages, email and social media. One may go so far as to say they carried out many of their attacks for the express purpose of generating online content.

After Zarqawi’s death, the Islamic State became even more adept at using social media to spread its propaganda, recruit acolytes, raise funds and inspire “lone wolf” jihadists to carry out attacks in the West. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose most prominent member was the Yemeni American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, was equally skilled at propaganda, publishing an online English-language magazine called Inspire that, true to its name, inspired a number of terrorist attacks. Awlaki’s videos, which still circulate online, also helped to motivate terrorists long after his death in an American airstrike in Yemen in 2011.

Right-wing extremists are less organized than the Islamist extremists, but they also depend on the Internet to spread their sick messages. In France, the extreme right’s online network is called the fachosphère. Many white supremacists leave behind online manifestos to explain their hideous acts. These, in turn, inspire fresh outrages in the future. The Christchurch shooter, for example, cited the influence of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right Norwegian who had emailed a 1,500-page manifesto just before slaughtering nearly 80 people in July 2011. The alleged Christchurch killer, in turn, left a 74-page manifesto of his own.

The United States and its allies long ago recognized the need to combat jihadist propaganda online. They have spent many millions of dollars to take down jihadist websites and to offer anti-jihadist messaging online. But efforts to fight far-right propaganda online lack comparable funding or urgency, though right-wing terrorists have killed far more people in the United States in the past decade than Islamist extremists have. Indeed, the Trump administration has been cutting funding to fight right-wing extremism. That needs to change, before there are more atrocities such as the ones in Christchurch or Pittsburgh.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: The New Zealand attack and the fundamental thoughtlessness of evil

Anne Applebaum: Radicalism kills. Why do we only care about one kind?

Max Boot: Not all terrorism is treated equally

Henry Olsen: Now more than ever, Trump must protect and stand by Muslims