Report

How the Christchurch Shooter Played the World’s Media

Friday’s shooting in New Zealand was a terrorist attack conceived for the internet era.

A security official stands guard near the Al Noor mosque after a shooting in Christchurch on March 15. (Tessa Burrows/AFP)
A security official stands guard near the Al Noor mosque after a shooting in Christchurch on March 15. (Tessa Burrows/AFP)

In the days and hours ahead of his deadly killing spree at a New Zealand mosque on Friday, the alleged shooter left a trail of digital evidence that demonstrated one clear purpose: His terrorist attack was conceived with the internet in mind. The murderer was making a snuff film for the social media era, one that would get instantaneous global distribution by being broadcast live to his Facebook page.

Even the location for the shootings, tucked-away New Zealand, was apparently selected to send a message that would resonate instantly across the darker digital world: No place on earth is safe any longer from the white supremacists and their creed, who have achieved a new life on the internet.

That body of work—a press kit for a terrorist attack that left 49 people dead—now serves as the fodder for an insatiable global media broadcasting the killer’s ideas around the world, bringing them further into the mainstream. And that too appears to have been just the plan of the killer, who seems to have participated in some of its most toxic online subcultures. (Police identified the suspect as a 28-year-old Australian named Brenton Tarrant.)

All this poses hard questions for how the media should respond to a massacre broadcast across the internet.

“The media is pretty good at dealing with groups like al Qaeda,” with a clear leadership and organizational structure, argues Robert Evans, a journalist and researcher who has written extensively about online extremist groups. Leaderless online communities like those the shooter appears to have participated in pose a far more difficult challenge.

At the center of the shooter’s media strategy was a sordid video: a 17-minute film broadcast live from a camera mounted to his military-style helmet. It showed the suspect in real time as he drove his Subaru to his target, walked up to the mosque, and began shooting.

His followers knew to tune in because he had advertised the shooting—and the fact that he would stream it live—on the message board site 8chan, an image-sharing site that prides itself on hosting content deemed too offensive for the internet’s other cesspools. Along with a link to his Facebook page, the shooter posted links to his 74-page manifesto spread across multiple sites so that other users of 8chan could grab a copy before the document was taken down. (8chan grew out of the similar site 4chan after some users of the latter thought it had become too hostile to highly offensive and hateful content.)

In the hours following the shooting, the global media has broadcast this material far and wide. The British tabloid the Sun posted excerpts of the shooter’s video on its homepage, and the Daily Mail provided its readers with a link to download the manifesto. The U.S. cable outlet MSNBC displayed the manifesto prominently on air and quoted from it.

For hours after the attack, the video was available on YouTube before the platform scrubbed it. It was also available on Facebook, where it was originally broadcast, for a time before the platform worked to remove it. While the video is now mostly unavailable on major sites, any enterprising internet user can still find it.

Friday’s shooting wasn’t the first time a brutal murder was livestreamed on Facebook—an Islamic State fighter used the technology to immediately confess to the murder of a French police captain and his partner in 2016.

But the shooter’s manifesto, video, and means of distributing the two were remarkable for the way in which they were steeped in the idioms and conventions of online culture. And they suggested the killer, who was said to admire the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, wanted mainly to achieve a similar kind of racist immortality.

At the outset of the video, the shooter encourages viewers to subscribe to the YouTube personality, PewDiePie, who has flirted with anti-Semitism and has made derogatory statements about women. With just short of 90 million subscribers, he is the world’s most popular YouTube personality.

The reference to PewDiePie led to the YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg, issuing a statement denouncing the attack—and ensured that his legions of followers would be exposed to what happened in New Zealand.

While referencing previous white nationalist mass shooters, the manifesto is replete with references to online memes, the images and texts that make up the shared language of internet users. At its core, the manifesto is a screed advocating the killing of non-ethnic Europeans.

At times, the author deliberately provokes readers unfamiliar with internet culture by making outlandish statements outsiders may take seriously. In one remarkable passage in which the author addresses whether he was taught violence from video games, he writes that he learned about “ethno-nationalism” from the video game Spyro the Dragon 3 and that the video game Fortnite trained him “to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies,” a reference to the celebratory dances that are a component of that game.

The document is steeped in the types of message board in-jokes and make clear its author is a veteran member of such communities. The author used as his avatar a well known meme—“Australian Shitposters”—that refers to “the commonly held stereotype that Australian 4chan users are responsible for the vast majority of shitposts created on the site,” according to the website knowyourmeme.com. The word “shitposts” refers to low-quality submissions to an online message board.

In advertising the attack on 8chan, the shooter wrote, “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post.”

Just as the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally of American white nationalists brought fringe elements of the American far-right out from their dark corners of the internet and onto the streets of a Virginia college town, Friday’s shooting brought the most noxious form of 8chan racism into the sanctuary of a Christchurch mosque.

How to cover online phenomena such as these represent a profound challenge for traditional media organizations. In a 2018 report, researchers at Data & Society, a nonprofit research organization, examined how coverage of online communities and their racist ideology brought them into the mainstream.

“Just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe—which subsumed everything from professional conspiracy theorists to pro-Trump social media shitposters to actual Nazis—played directly into these groups’ public relations interests,” the researchers concluded. “In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.”

When members of the far-right fringe leave the internet and engage in mass violence, it is all but impossible for media outlets not to cover the issue. The killing of 49 people is, in the parlance of the media, news. The challenge lies in telling that story without also exposing a huge number of the uninitiated to the violently racist online communities that inspired the attack.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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