NZ Authorities Have Been Ignoring Online Right-Wing Radicalisation For Years
I was targeted by the internet's hate factory and the Police's only response was "just log off".
Floral tributes for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. Image: Reuters
In the wake of the terrorist shooting in Christchurch, we’ve seen a lot of debate as to whether the attack does or does not represent New Zealand. Both are true: the shooter’s motivations don’t align with the ideals held by the nation at large, while there is a vein of racism that lurks under and sometimes on the surface of our culture. Wilfully or not, we have turned far too blind an eye to the elements of New Zealand society that are reflected in the shooter’s beliefs and actions.
Most troubling, though, is the fact that most New Zealand white supremacists won’t outwardly behave as such, or even consort with other white supremacists. Indeed, New Zealand’s intelligence agencies had not flagged the shooter before he executed his murder spree, as he likely hadn’t done anything that would throw up a flag. For today, the number-one vector for right-wing radicalisation is on the internet: anonymous, insidious, everywhere, and tragically effective.
I’ve been writing about online radicalisation for years. Though the seeds had been planted earlier, it first entered the news in a significant way in 2014’s “GamerGate” scandal, when the worst elements of the video-gaming community engaged in a massive, coordinated sexist harassment campaign. It began when a prominent female developer’s spiteful ex-boyfriend mobilised the Internet’s collected misogynists against her, and exploded into an industry crisis as a toxic sect of gamers added more and more developers and journalists to the list of targets. So huge was the torrent of abuse, it sparked a widespread increase in equitable hiring practices around the industry. US Congress and the UN saw testimony on the subject.
During that period, I was one of the journalists targeted by the online mob. I received enormous amounts of abuse on social media thanks to the editorials I wrote, and more troublingly, my personal information was published on 8chan—an anonymous messageboard site whose “free-speech” values extend to explicitly or tacitly allowing material like neo-Nazi propaganda, child pornography, and stolen Social Security numbers.
The thread was posted in the site’s now-defunct “baphomet” board, whose sole purpose was to seek out ideologically unwanted targets and destroy their lives—typically by posting their personal information and harassing them via social media, email, phone, and mail, and in extreme cases by calling in bomb threats at their houses, stalking them at public events, calling their employers to get them fired under false pretences, and doing any of the above to the target’s friends and family. My geographical isolation luckily made it difficult to use several of these tactics, but I got Twitter abuse from a member of New Zealand’s Right Wing Resistance hate group. It’s never that far away.
Sexist video gamers didn’t murder 50 people in Christchurch last week, but games still factor significantly in alt-right culture, and for good reason: GamerGate laid the groundwork for what was to come. A significant part of what made it such a militant hate movement was the fact that it was leapt upon by right-wing media—most notoriously, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart—as an opportunity to convert these angry people to their cause and expose them to more explicitly right-wing ideas.
That group of mostly-young, mostly-disaffected video gamers became the template for what would become known via the euphemism “alt-right,” and since then, it’s grown out of control. The Utøya shooting and bombing, the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, and the mass shootings in Isla Vista, Jeffersontown, Orlando, Charleston, and Pittsburgh all have links to this online radicalisation machine.
In just five years, the machine had evolved from a niche online abuse movement to a worldwide driver of attempted genocide.
I’d been watching and warning about this all the while, growing more aghast yet less surprised with each subsequent shooting, but it truly hit home on March 15, when my hometown Christchurch became the site of the latest one. All the hallmarks of online radicalisation were there: the Islamophobic motivation, the livestreaming, the use of right-wing memes, and most tellingly the publication of a manifesto on 8chan, the same site whose users had doxed and attacked me and many others. In just five years, the machine had evolved from a niche online abuse movement to a worldwide driver of attempted genocide. If I was to script the textbook hate crime of 2019, this was exactly how it would go.
White supremacists do not emerge from the ether as fully-formed terrorists. It usually starts with jokes. Messageboards like 8chan and its ever-so-slightly more respectable predecessor 4chan are breeding grounds for racist memes—they travel and iterate fast, thanks to the frictionless and fluid nature of the sites’ construction, and frequently spread onto more mainstream social-media sites like Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook. As a white person, I’ve largely escaped being the target of racist memers—but that only means they attack my masculinity, my intelligence, my progressivism, or my general perceived weakness. Right-wing meme creators describe all these things as “ironic” or “satirical,” but in practice, there’s no difference between “ironic” bigotry and real bigotry. The one props up the other, under a veil of plausible deniability.
Often, this begins on YouTube. Sometimes it’s via streamers like PewDiePie, who has regularly broadcast racist jokes to his 90 million subscribers, to the point that “subscribe to PewDiePie,” as spoken by the Christchurch shooter, is now a right-wing dogwhistle. Other times it’s via self-described “thinkers” who dress up their hate in respectable clothing. And often it comes via streamers posting hours-long political rants that the site’s recommendation algorithm—working as intended—promotes to countless users. I would know; I’ve been the subject of several angry right-wing YouTube videos, from both when I called out GamerGate as a hate movement in 2014 and when I called out YouTubers’ “jokes” as a radicalising factor in the Christchurch shooting.
It’s in the Internet’s anonymous underworld where the real radicalisation begins. Sites like 8chan and 4chan, both notorious for hosting bigoted rhetoric under the auspices of free speech, operate without usernames or accounts. There’s no distinguishing between the people who post on them; sometimes people will post in different assumed voices solely to stoke fires. Anonymity is not itself a threat, of course—it’s vital to many of the Internet’s most constructive uses—but it takes a lot of the friction out of mainstreaming hateful views. When you can’t be identified, there are no consequences for saying anything. Genocide, Holocaust denial, eugenics—all fair game.
The tone in these sites’ more unpleasant boards is one of constant escalation. Their structures inherently don’t present users as human beings—which makes it all the easier to dissociate from reality and dehumanise others. Nothing brings channers greater smirking joy than seeing someone carry out in real life something they’ve goaded them into online—the more violent, and the more video evidence, the better. They get their “lulz” from having made someone commit mass murder, and continue on.
Unsurprisingly, the Christchurch shooter used 8chan to announce his attack, and to post a manifesto that, in keeping with 8chan’s sincere insincerity, is part genuine hate screed, part deflective shitposting. Copies of and links to the manifesto and his Facebook livestream flourished on this side of the internet, and thanks to the Police criminalising possession of them (and a degree of human decency), New Zealand’s biggest ISPs blocked access to these sites entirely. It’s no surprise that the reaction received by those companies has been a mixture of racist abuse and holier-than-thou cries for free speech. The only right to free speech 8chan users care about is the right to be fucking assholes without consequences. It has always been this way.
The response from law enforcement bodies tends toward a mixture of indifference, minimisation, and incomprehension.
When I was doxed on 8chan, I spoke to the local police about it, as did many other GamerGate targets in their own towns and countries. The response from law enforcement bodies tends toward a mixture of indifference, minimisation, and incomprehension. They didn’t understand the Internet, and their advice is “just log off,” or “ignore it.” Such attitudes are antiquated, based on an antiquated view of the Internet. The right-wing radicalisation machine that has evolved over the past five to ten years is run by people who’ve grown up on the Internet; who know exactly how effective it can be; who use their platforms to influence real-life events. The Internet is real life, and in the Christchurch shooting, perpetrated by someone clearly intimately familiar with online culture, we saw that illustrated in the most horrifying way possible.
That the New Zealand government didn’t have the shooter on any watch lists—in fact, there is no mention of right-wing extremism in the last ten years of public intelligence documents—doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s incredibly difficult for large organisations and older generations to keep up with the pace and complexity of the Internet underworld. It’s also difficult, by its anonymous nature, to trace this kind of activity to individuals. Extreme-right organisations still exist in New Zealand, but they’re the tip of the iceberg that is today’s anonymous, untraceable world of violent bigotry.
Politicians and the mainstream media, too, bear a serious portion of the blame. US President Donald Trump is a clear figurehead for modern white nationalism, but New Zealand’s own government isn’t blameless either. Their motivations were varied in bringing it up, but major New Zealand political parties speaking about curbing immigration in the 2017 election was a massive dogwhistle to the new extreme Right, whether it was intended or not. Any perceived nod to xenophobic views is an emboldening factor—especially given the far-Right’s current surge in global power. All this gets picked up by the press and amplified by conservative media personalities, and thus legitimacy is gained.
Finally, none of this happens without a society that consciously or unconsciously turns a blind eye toward its most hateful elements. All it takes for racist ideas to creep in is apathy, and New Zealand’s often self-congratulatory approach to race relations certainly breeds that. Taika Waititi was right: New Zealand is a racist place. Its history is racist, obviously, in the colonial sense. But its present is, too: you see it in economic inequality, in incarceration rates, in the media, in openly fascist groups, and in the casual racism of everyday life. From the laughing-off of quaint senior-citizen racism, to the less-quaintly racist slurs hurled at immigrants from moving vehicles, to the school kids I’ve observed swapping racist jokes a stone’s throw from the Al Noor Mosque, New Zealand is, still, a racist place. Are we so keen to celebrate our successes that we’re willing to totally ignore our failures?
I was not surprised to see the events of March 15 play out the way they did. I was appalled to see it happen in New Zealand, certainly, but the particulars surrounding the attack were wearyingly familiar. We’ve been seeing this pattern over and over for years. So many white shooters have been radicalised via the internet that it’s idiotic not to consider its darker corners a threat to global security. He might have seemed like a lone wolf by conventional standards, but the Christchurch shooter was not one. More of his like are percolating in the dark, likely now at increased pace. More attacks will come.
I don’t know how New Zealand’s and the world’s intelligence and law-enforcement communities can track and fight this kind of phenomenon. It’s difficult at best and maybe outright impossible at worst. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stated that the government will look more seriously at the role of social media in these crimes, but I hope that it will dig deeper than that, looking at the innumerable social and digital mechanisms that allow hatred to rise. We’re a small country, and thus an agile one; we have an opportunity to truly lead in this fight.
White supremacy comes in many forms. We must oppose them all.
Follow Andrew on Twitter.