As the gunman accused of killing 49 people in attacks on two New Zealand mosques put his murderous plan into action, he had an audience. Using what appeared to be a helmet camera, the gunman live-streamed his attack, speaking to users on the hate-laden site 8chan, whom he alerted moments earlier to what was about to happen.
The live stream served as entertainment for one of the most twisted parts of the Internet. It was also part of an online trap for everyone else, one full of in-jokes that would delight the audience on 8chan and confuse the unsuspecting people who found the live stream as it ricocheted across the Internet after the shooting. There was also a manifesto, posted to Twitter, Facebook and 8chan, a 74-page document that combines white-supremacist and Islamophobic thoughts with several references to memes.
The manifesto is a result of a life lived in the worst parts of the Internet, where the most vile thoughts can be expressed through, and alongside, moronic inside jokes. But experts have warned that this juxtaposition is not one of the harmful and the harmless. Extremist beliefs and edgy meme culture work together online to reach larger audiences. The manifesto isn’t a valuable look inside the mind of a mass murderer, and the memes he referenced are not a separate curiosity. Instead, the gunman created a press release for racism.
Although the scope of the New Zealand massacre feels as though it’s taking us into a new world of “extremely online” murderers, the patterns here are ones we’ve seen before. A man accused of killing 10 people in a van attack in Toronto last year had posted meme-laden in-jokes before the attack that were meant for the insular, misogynist incel community. In 2015, the gunman who killed WDBJ TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in Roanoke filmed the shooting, posted it to Facebook and advertised it on social media accounts. By 2019, we know that mass murderers want to go viral and that social media is making it easier for that to happen.
The New Zealand gunman advertised his massacre on social media, laced his manifesto with jokes that would be recognized by specific segments of online culture, and ensured that the first things the rest of the world would see and hear about the shooting were exactly the things he wanted them to know. It would be hours before the platforms that helped spread his message did something to stop it.
This manifesto is the work of someone who understands the Internet and how to metaphorically weaponize it. He understood that he had two audiences: the anonymous racists on 8chan who would celebrate their inclusion in a horrific mass murder, and the media, which would lead the rest of the world’s search for meaning.
Juxtaposed with overtly racist screeds in his manifesto are references to Candace Owens, Spyro the Dragon and Fortnite that are almost certainly meant as inside jokes to the racist online fringe, ones that, if the racists are very lucky, will be misinterpreted by journalists as they comb the manifesto for answers. In a Q&A portion of the document, an answer to one question is almost entirely a “copypasta,” or copy-and-paste, meme about an aggressive Navy SEAL, one that we’re not going to reprint here and that wouldn’t make sense to most people anyway. In the same video where the gunman shows himself mercilessly killing scores of worshipers, he tells viewers to “Subscribe to PewDiePie,” a massive YouTube star who is not connected to the shooting but whose online presence has become an exhausting, never-ending meme about ironic and genuine Nazis online. Even the songs the gunman played in the live stream are references.
“The attackers made those references so that journalists would scramble to make sense of them, and that would drive more people into red pilling rabbit holes,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s department of communication and rhetorical studies, said in an email. “Redpilling” is a term used mostly by people on the Internet’s far right to describe radicalization toward their worldview, and it encompasses a lot more than simply circulating racist beliefs.
As more and more events of mass violence have links to extreme online culture, experts who spend time in these spaces have attempted to preempt the cycle of amplification from happening again. Phillips, along with Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, published a Twitter thread in the wake of the New Zealand shooting urging journalists not to spend their time on explaining the manifesto’s many meme references — but instead “on what Islamophobia means and does to people around the world, & how it spreads across social media without any meaningful checks from social media platforms.”
Rebecca Lewis, a research affiliate for Data and Society, has documented how the boundaries between mainstream culture and extremist content are permeable on YouTube. Racism finds an audience online just as any aspiring influencer would: by getting more mainstream personalities with bigger audiences to reference them in their content. These connections are aided by algorithms that recommend to users content they might like to see. In the case of YouTube, that’s created rabbit holes that place curious viewers just a click or two away from extreme viewpoints — a phenomenon that platforms are just now struggling to untangle and stop.
Perspective | Social media platforms were used like lethal weapons in New Zealand. That must change now.
The New Zealand gunman created a message about himself that was designed to exploit these systems, to go viral before his claims could be examined and contextualized. Even the act of attempting to parse what is “genuine” and what is “just trolling” in his comments helps to spread something false: that within the context of an extreme online space there are parts that are dangerous and parts that are not.
Robert Evans, a writer who has examined how online culture and radicalization intersect, touched on this in his examination of how the manifesto was constructed. Underneath the edgy meme references is the underlying truth that entertainment and indoctrination are not mutually exclusive. “The shooter seems to have achieved his goal,” Evans wrote, “of providing the anons of 8chan with lulz, and with inspiration.”