The alleged main shooter, 28-year-old Australian man Brenton Tarrant, was steeped in a far-right ideology that has proliferated online. He prepared for the attack by posting a rambling “manifesto” and then live streamed the massacre on Facebook.
Tarrant’s online presence bore the imagery and cliches of an obscure internet community that would be completely foreign and outlandish to most people. These themes drew heavily from the “Australian shitposters” subculture that thrives on a site called 8chan, uses Australian symbols and the hashtag #DingoTwitter.
Members of this community engage in racism and hatred towards people of colour and anyone who dissents against their brand of white nationalism. Their extremism is expressed through smug, ironic and idiosyncratic language and memes. “Shitposting” is the publication of poor quality content designed to bait others.
“Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post,” Tarrant apparently posted on the forum.
“I will carry out and [sic] attack against the invaders, and will even live stream the attack via facebook … It’s been a long ride and despite all your rampant faggotry, fecklessness and degeneracy, you are all top blokes and the best bunch of cobbers a man could ask for.”
In his video, which bore a striking resemblance to a first-person shooter video game, he referenced a popular meme about a controversial YouTube star.
Terrorism and ethno-nationalism is not new. But what is new is a thriving online ecosystem that connects and radicalises bigots the world over.
Whitney Phillips, an expert on online communication at Syracuse University, says the ideology of “hate, chaos, and manipulation” is obvious and there needs to be increased scrutiny of its rampant spread across the internet, boosted by engagement from high-profile public figures.
“That environment is the story,” she says, pointing to the importance of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit.
Experts criticise the algorithms that incentivise and direct people to increasingly extreme content. Public scrutiny has previously focused on Islamic extremists’ exploitation of the platforms.
Phillips argues Tarrant’s manifesto is calculated propaganda that must be quarantined.
“It’s a trap, it’s all a trap,” she says.
Her warning about spreading the terrorist’s message after the attack also clashes with the news media’s instinct to explore a criminal’s background and motives — information the audience is seeking out.
But even as responsible platforms and outlets showed restraint and scrambled to contain Tarrant’s grotesque video, they could not stop it. The internet naturally favours agents of chaos, who exploit human nature and the torrential flow of information online.
“Shocking, violent and graphic content has no place on our platforms,” says a spokesman for YouTube. “And we are employing our technology and human resources to quickly review and remove any and all such violative content on YouTube.”
The platform has removed thousands of versions of the video. Some are crafted to be more difficult to detect, amassing thousands of views before being removed.
Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director of policy in Australia and New Zealand, says the company’s staff have been “working around the clock to respond to reports and block content”.
They are targeting not only the vision itself but content that expresses support for the attack or spreads conspiracy theories about it.
Australia’s eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, warned: “Advanced tech can help with some detection and surfacing this content but it will likely still be a game of whack-a-mole.”
While mainstream services try to police the content, it remains available and unchecked in lesser-known and less accountable platforms. The reality is that regular people — ignoring the advice of authorities — can find it if they want to. And want it they do.
On Friday afternoon, Google searches for the video went through the roof, according to data provided by the search engine.
“Christchurch shooting video”. “Full video Christchurch shooting”. “Christchurch shooting full live stream video”.
These and other variations continue to be searched en masse. With YouTube clamping down, people have actively sought out the video on more permissive sites. Searches peaked over Friday night and have remained consistently high into the weekend.
Phillips says the issue of amplification extends beyond media outlets, with online users inadvertently playing a major part.
“Citizens of good faith play an enormous role too — it might feel right to comment on specific elements of the shooters’ manifesto in order to condemn, but that still triggers attention and algorithms,” she contends.
The human censors and artificial intelligence tools that digital platforms have developed to wipe out malicious user-generated content cannot cope with the scale of the problem.
Joan Donovan, a researcher at the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says platforms can do more. One step could be restricting the availability of a user’s content until it is marked as safe for sharing.
“Instead, we have made the problem of chaos agents much worse by allowing them the freedom to broadcast mass shootings or manifestos without any understanding of who they may harm,” she says.
The eSafety commissioner says there must be greater investment in safety checks and balances at the design stage of social media tools like live streaming.
Clearly, dark forums of the internet are not the only force behind this atrocity. These online trolls have fellow travellers in media and politics across the world. Traditional media outlets have provided platforms for hate. High-profile right-wing firebrands have provided cover for the fringe bigotry and often promoted it wholeheartedly. In his manifesto, Tarrant pointed to various figures that had inspired him.
We have made the problem of chaos agents much worse by allowing them the freedom to broadcast mass shootings or manifestos without any understanding of who they may harm.
Joan Donovan, researcher, Harvard
In the wake of the attack, American radio host Rush Limbaugh promoted a conspiracy theory on air that the incident was a “false flag”, perpetrated by a “leftist who writes the manifesto and then goes out and performs the deed purposely to smear his political enemies”.
That baseless theory does not exist in a vacuum. It has bloomed on the online message boards where Tarrant spent his time. While some users promote the theory, others have openly celebrated the attacker’s actions.
As his anonymous fans continued to praise him on Saturday, Tarrant appeared in court. As he faced the first of many charges, he was smirking and made a “white power” hand gesture. Just another troll.
The online existence can feel fake and free of consequence, separate to our physical lives. The Christchurch attack makes clear that what happens on the internet is real — sometimes violently so.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.