When a white supremacist murdered 10 Black people in a livestreamed terror attack in Buffalo, New York, in May, the scenes were unspeakably horrific – yet also nauseatingly familiar.
The attack was just the latest to use a devastating new template of white supremacist terror that was first seen just over three years earlier, on the other side of the world, when an Australian extremist named Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
By livestreaming his act of mass murder via a helmet-mounted camera, Tarrant sought to create a new form of viral terrorist propaganda for the digital age. He wanted to shock the world and draw attention to his delusional, hateful beliefs, laid out in a lengthy screed posted to 8chan/pol, the far-right messageboard where he’d announced his imminent attack. Above all, he wanted to inspire like-minded extremists who inhabited the same toxic online spaces to follow in his bloody footsteps.
But for all the pledges by political leaders and tech giants to tackle online hate in the wake of Christchurch, Tarrant’s evil acts have had some of the desired effect. Since Christchurch, there has been a string of shootings that have followed a similar blueprint of white supremacist terror, explicitly naming Tarrant as their inspiration, or referring to the same racist conspiracy theories he cited. The fuse lit in Christchurch has resulted in bloodshed in Poway, California; El Paso, Texas; Baerum, Norway; Halle, Germany; and most recently Buffalo, unleashing terror on Jewish, Muslim, Latino and Black communities.
And, worryingly, the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that underpinned these attacks continues to gain traction, filtering from extremist online networks into more mainstream right-wing politics.
In Buffalo, the parallels with Christchurch were particularly stark, with the gunman livestreaming the shootings and posting a link to a so-called “manifesto,” its contents heavily lifted from Tarrant’s, who he mentioned by name.
“Post-Tarrant, everything is a copycat and everything kind of changes… there is a paradigm shift in how terrorism is done,” said Tim Squirrell, of anti-extremism non-profit the Insititute for Strategic Dialogue.
“Now you can't find a single person who's tried to do an act of right-wing inspired terrorism that who hasn't been influenced by or doesn't reference Tarrant. It's all Christchurch copycats all the time.”
Experts say that part of the reason Tarrant’s carefully plotted attack had so much cut-through in far-right digital spaces was not just only the sensational nature of the act, but because it was designed to resonate with the online subcultures he belonged to.
Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at the Counter Extremism Project, said that Tarrant’s so-called manifesto was full of in-jokes and memes from internet and gaming culture. He referenced a dance from the game Fortnite, and joked that one old PlayStation game had “taught [him] ethnonationalism.” Before getting out of his car and launching the attack, Tarrant told his livestream followers to subscribe to the popular YouTuber PewDiePie.
His followers have responded in kind, with the gunman who attacked a mosque in Baerum, Norway, in 2019, posting a meme shortly before the shooting depicting Saint Tarrant, with himself as a “disciple.”
“[Tarrant] really created this this whole subculture in a sense of neo-Nazi accelerationists,” said Fisher-Birch.
But it’s not just Tarrant’s methods that have caught on, but also the underlying ideology that motivated his crimes. These far-right gunmen have all subscribed to a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” – the title that Tarrant gave to the rambling document he posted online – which has gained increasing currency in right-wing circles over the past decade or so.
The theory, a rehash of longstanding far-right narratives around the erasure of white people, holds that white populations are being actively “replaced” by non-white immigrants. According to different versions of the narrative, this “replacement” is being carried out with the collusion of various political enemies: left-wingers and liberals, globalist elites, and inevitably, “the Jews.”
As evidenced by the variety of different communities targeted in recent attacks, it’s a malleable narrative that can be used by right-wing extremists to attempt to justify violence against a wide array of targets, from ethnic minority groups considered to be “replacers,” to those perceived as enabling or orchestrating the “replacement.”
Researchers say the theory has its roots in Victorian-era narratives about “white extinction,” and has circulated in various formulations since then.
“You've had versions of this for a very long time,” said Squirrell. “In the 90s, it was called white genocide. In some corners, it still is.”
But it was popularised in its current iteration by French far-right writer Renaud Camus, whose 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement argued that white Europeans were being replaced, demographically and culturally, by non-white immigrants through their higher birthrates and the cooperation of “replacist” elites.
Since then, the idea has gained alarming traction across the political right, spreading from far-right online spaces through to street groups, but also creeping into more mainstream right-wing politicians and media.
“If you look at the surge in popularity of ‘great replacement’ theory, it's really in the 2010s,” said Squirrell. “It's really important to localise that to fringe internet culture, where these same ideas can gather speed, gather velocity and gather popularity, and then spread from that to more mainstream spaces.”
The “great replacement” theory is central to the ideology of far-right youth movements like the Identitarians, and was unmissable in the infamous “Jews will not replace us” slogan chanted by tiki-torch carrying marchers at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Yet despite the deadly impact of the conspiracy theory, versions of the narrative continue to seep into more mainstream spaces.
Just days after the Buffalo attack, Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orbán, a staunch opponent of immigration, said in a speech that he viewed “the great European population exchange as a suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilizations.” In February, during France’s presidential campaign, Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the mainstream centre-right party, said during a speech that the country was not doomed to the “great replacement” and called on supporters “to rise up.”
Meanwhile, in the US, Republican politicians and right-wing media pundits like Tucker Carlson have repeatedly pushed softened “replacement” narratives, framing them as partisan political issues, rather than one rooted in racial anxieties.
“Rather than bring in something which seems racist at its core, you make it seem as though it's just politics,” said Squirrell. “So the problem… is that the Democrats are bringing in people from south of the border who are going to vote Democrat. It's not about them being nonwhite.
“It becomes really quite easy to slip into the nightly news.”