A far-right terrorist is accused of murdering 49 people in two New Zealand mosques Friday, an abominable crime that will devastate the small Muslim community of Christchurch long after the media have turned their gaze to other tragedies. But in certain circles, the suspect’s actions will likely live on, possibly inspiring more violence and emboldening far-right extremism around the world. And that, too, was the intent.
This was a massacre whelped in internet culture, specifically engineered to exploit the speed and reach of social media and the networked groups of bad actors who have made such extremism a global threat.
By the time the shooting started, the accused killer appeared to have posted a rambling, irony-laden manifesto to Twitter, Facebook and 8chan, where a digital death cult of white supremacists and keyboard nihilists cheered him on. Filled with far-right inside jokes and trolling designed to trip up a gullible press, the manifesto was apparently intended to channel attention from the murderous acts toward an online cesspool of propaganda about non-white immigration and demographic change.
The killer live-streamed the attack in the style of a first-person shooter video game. “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” he also said, invoking an inside joke about YouTube’s most popular streamer. Even the terrorist’s music playlist as he drove to his first target, which included alt-right faves, was curated for maximum virality.
Mass shooters have long sought to hijack mass media platforms to promote themselves, their evil acts and their agendas. Elliot Rodger, an “incel” who murdered six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014, uploaded a “retribution” video to YouTube announcing his intent to slaughter women the day before he carried out a grisly attack. Anders Breivik of the 2011 Norway massacre put out a lengthy manifesto attempting to justify his actions. So did Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
But while the Christchurch killer’s viral aspirations were perhaps more explicitly articulated than his immediate predecessors’, what he was trying to accomplish was not entirely new. What’s different this time, though, is that the gunman optimized his attack for the extremely online Generation Z crowd.
Columbine And Cable News
The Columbine, Colorado, massacre in 1999 inaugurated the era of mass murders designed for mass media consumption. The high school attackers were inspired by Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government, white supremacist terrorist who killed 168 people with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995. Eric Harris, the ring leader, wasn’t particularly ideological, but he was fascinated with Nazis and wore a shirt that read “Natural selection” during the attacks. He planned to carry out the attack on April 19, the anniversary of McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing. The boys ended up needing an extra day to get ammunition, so the attack was carried out on April 20, Hitler’s birthday.
Harris wanted to gain worldwide infamy by killing more people than McVeigh. Part of that plan involved hijacking TV news. The 24-hour cable news network had emerged as an easily exploitable mass medium in the early 1990s when the U.S. waged a made-for-TV war against Iraq.
Harris and his sidekick, Dylan Klebold, planned to tap into cable news networks’ need for instant and repetitive coverage of pseudo-celebrities by murdering their classmates — and, they hoped, members of the media themselves. They wanted their attack to be devastating. They planned to detonate bombs in the cafeteria, killing hundreds of students, journalist Dave Cullen wrote in a book about the shooting. When surviving students ran to the exits, Harris and Klebold planned to gun them down. Their envisioned coda was to ram their explosive-laden vehicles into TV news crews, police officers and rescue workers arriving on the scene. The plotters’ only problem was that they were teenagers who had downloaded bomb-making instructions from the internet.
Their bombs did not detonate. They failed to kill more people than McVeigh. But they still achieved infamy. Even worse, Harris’ journals, posted online, became a source of inspiration to future killers who sought to emulate his nihilist pursuit of higher and higher kill counts. Many school shooters have since claimed to be inspired by Harris. A high kill count remains a goal for mass murderers, including the New Zealand suspect.
“I only wish I could have killed more invaders, and more traitors as well,” the Christchurch suspect wrote in his manifesto.
Anders Breivik Needs Internet Access
In the decade after Columbine, the internet and social media emerged as mass media platforms that extremists could use to find inspiration and to attract a following. It gave murderers seeking infamy a way to promote their propaganda, as well as a direct line to their audience.
Like Harris, Anders Breivik didn’t just want to kill. He wanted to be famous for it. A lonely narcissist with an outsized sense of his own importance, Breivik spent years planning his attack and drafting his 1,500-page manifesto. He immersed himself in the Islamophobic ravings of American extremists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, whose fear-mongering blogs warn of Muslims taking over Western countries. Breivik viewed himself as a soldier in this culture war: He anointed himself the Commander of the ancient Christian military order called the Knights Templar, saved up money to finance his attack, stockpiled guns, taught himself how to make a bomb and jacked himself up on steroids.
In 2011, Breivik used a car bomb and semiautomatic guns to kill 77 people — including dozens of children — who were affiliated with Norway’s left-leaning Labour party. His initial plan, he said after the attack, was to handcuff a former Labour prime minister, decapitate her with a bayonet, film the execution on his iPhone and upload it online.
When Breivik was captured, his primary interest was not declaring his innocence or minimizing his punishment — he just wanted to be important. He wanted to be acknowledged as a “commander” even after he surrendered. He demanded access to a computer while in prison so that he could continue to write his hateful ideology.
When Murderers Become Memes
In 2012, the year after Breivik went on his killing spree, Facebook went public and began a race with Google and Twitter to keep eyeballs on their site for the maximum number of minutes per day. Suddenly, most Americans had a computer in their pocket running an algorithm designed to send them the most engaging content.
In the following years, men all over the world fashioned their incoherent racism into self-aggrandizing manifestos and plotted ways to achieve notoriety through murder. They used these digital platforms to distribute their propaganda. The major players like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter failed to keep up with the way their services were used to promote death and radicalize budding extremists to violence. And far-right platforms, like 4chan, 8chan, and Gab, were happy to boost the effort.
In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed and shot his way through a college town near Santa Barbara. On his way to a sorority house, he uploaded a video to YouTube, saying he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and depriving him of sex. Just before killing himself, he emailed family members the text of his own manifesto, detailing his hatred of women and the men who got attention from women — particularly black men he deemed less deserving of affection than himself.
Incels, “involuntary celibates,” a mostly male community of people who feel entitled to sex, idolized Rodger as a martyr — the victim of superficial women who were too dumb to give gentlemen a chance. Fans re-posted Rodger’s YouTube videos in which he complained about rejection from women. They posted on 4chan about an incel uprising against “Chads” and “Stacys” — internet-speak for sex-havers. Threats of violence were cloaked in jokey memes. “Doing it for the lulz” provided plausible deniability.
But some people took it seriously.
Last year, 25-year-old Alek Minassian plowed his van onto a sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people. Just before the attack, he posted on Facebook: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
Just as incels meme-ified Rodgers into an internet celebrity, Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston church in 2015, quickly became the face of a subculture of online racists. His fans posted about being part of the “Bowl Gang” or “Bowl Patrol,” a reference to Roof’s bowl cut hairstyle. Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi who runs the Daily Stormer hate site — where Roof was a commenter, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — affectionately calls Roof “DyRo.” Anglin’s webmaster, the neo-Nazi Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, even proposed raising funds to erect a statue to “Saint Dylann.”
To hard-core online white supremacists, Roof’s massacre was just another edgy joke. But it was also a template.
In becoming an internet phenomenon, Roof has already inspired copycat efforts. A white supremacist in South Carolina was arrested in 2017 for his attempt to launch an attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof.” Another was arrested in Washington state last year after posting about “pulling a Dylan Roof” at a school or Jewish synagogue. In November, a District of Columbia white supremacist who called himself “DC Bowl Gang” and fantasized about killing Jews and blacks was arrested after family members tipped off the FBI. The next month, two more people were arrested after trying to blow up a bar in Toledo, Ohio. One of them had a Tumblr account called “CharlestonChurchMiracle” and had corresponded with Roof by mail.
As internet culture quickened and went even more off-leash, it became clear that far-right extremists had come up with ways to promote death online that non-racist killers would also take advantage of ― and help evolve.
Slaughter On Autoplay
The summer of the Charleston massacre, an embittered former employee at a CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, Vester Lee Flanagan II, found a way to bring his audience even closer to the violence: He filmed himself murdering his co-workers while they reported a live news story on air. He uploaded the video he filmed from his perspective to Twitter and Facebook — which had started autoplaying videos, a strategy designed to get the maximum number of viewers. The video, which looked identical to a first-person shooter video game, went viral.
“The horror,” New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote, “was the dawning realization, as the video spread across the networks, that the killer had anticipated the moves — that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted.”
The murderer, like many other fame-seeking killers, released a manifesto that sought to offer a half-baked and after-the-fact justification. He declared himself a follower of Eric Harris and Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech killer who himself stated he was inspired by Harris.
Social media platforms deleted Flanagan’s accounts as quickly as possible, but the video had already spread and continued to spread as 8chan nihilists and fascists continued to promote a heinous act they would soon turn into a meme.
As the rise of the alt-right on the coattails of President Donald Trump’s presidential victory demonstrates, social media companies have shown neither the willingness nor the ability to keep pace with meme warriors who exploit internet platforms for nefarious purposes ― some of which now have meta-political implications. Bad actors are only getting better at weaponizing hate and violence online.
Consider Robert Bowers, a neo-Nazi accused of killing 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. Bowers didn’t broadcast the shooting, but he appears to have been radicalized to violence on anti-immigrant memes via an internet connection. He is both the intended audience for today’s far-right snuff propaganda and a tool to generate more of it, which only inspires future racist mass shooters.
This goes beyond post-Columbine school shootings, where copycats sought infamy more than anything else. It is violent political extremism. It is white supremacy. And it is a cycle turbocharged in new ways by social media.
The New Zealand mosque shooting is the horrifying next evolution of this hate, an offspring of its bloody predecessors but dangerous in different ways. The sheer terror of the killing on autoplay, laced with an edgelord’s psychopathic detachment and ability to blast through the fourth wall — it is mass murder of a new sort, committed by and performed for millennial extremists.