The Christchurch shooting suspect comes from an extreme online culture

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
March 15, 2019

Details are still emerging about the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which at least 49 people were killed at two mosques. However, it appears that one person with advance knowledge of the planned attack is an active participant in a radicalized online right-wing media culture. Before the massacre, a man posted a long manifesto, police said, which was full of inside references to online memes and ideas that are commonly circulated among the radical right. An individual announced his intention to carry out an attack on the online messaging board 8chan, linking to the manifesto, before the massacre occurred. Video that appeared to be one of the shootings was live-streamed, clearly in the hope that it would go viral on social media. Without understanding how this culture works, it’s hard to understand what the manifesto was supposed to do.

It’s probably no accident that 8chan was involved

Over the past several years, a new extreme-right online culture has come into being, shaped by message boards such as 4chan and 8chan. Many memes that have gone viral on the Internet have come from 4chan: It was also the birthing place of Anonymous, a loosely left-anarchist social movement and organization that was involved in various forms of hacking and cultural protest. Over the last few years, however, these boards — together with Reddit and other less well known websites — helped give rise to a new community of the far right. The culture was in part spurred by the way that discussion boards like 4chan operate. Conversational threads appear and disappear rapidly, never to be seen again. The result is a frenzied Darwinian competition, in which those who want to keep their threads going vie to come up with the most provocative, startling or offensive pictures or comments to get others to react and keep the thread from dying.

Most participants care more about shocking or amusing others than becoming zealots for a cause. However, an environment where outrageousness has become an evolutionary imperative creates fertile ground for neo-Nazi, racist and misogynistic arguments and memes. Some neo-Nazis — most prominently Andrew Anglin, founder of the notorious Daily Stormer website — say that they were radicalized by 4chan. It is hard to be sure how many people had the same experience, but it is at least plausible that some people who initially merely used radical right-wing ideas to shock others became desensitized and radicalized over time, and came to embrace the ideas that they had first thought of as jokes. This was possibly amplified when many people left 4chan after it had banned discussion of “Gamergate” (a massive battle over women and video-game culture), and migrated to the more permissive 8chan, which rapidly became a petri dish where extreme right-wing views can flourish.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post