In the hours after the horrific mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, people desperately searched the internet for any sign of a motive or meaning behind the attack. Early Friday, a number of unverified social-media posts surfaced, along with a bizarre manifesto posted to 8chan, rich with irony and references to memes.
Together, the posts suggest that every aspect of the shootings was designed to gain maximum attention online, in part by baiting the media. The shooter live-streamed the attack itself on Facebook, and the video was quickly shared across YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. Before committing the act, he shouted, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” a reference to Felix Kjellberg, who runs YouTube’s most subscribed-to channel. The phrase itself is a meme started by PewDiePie’s fans, and its goal is to be reprinted.
Kjellberg, who has previously found himself embroiled in controversy over alleged anti-Semitism, disavowed the shooting on Twitter Friday morning. “Just heard news of the devastating reports from New Zealand Christchurch. I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person. My heart and thoughts go out to the victims, families and everyone affected by this tragedy,” he wrote. By forcing Kjellberg to acknowledge the attack, the shooter succeeded in further spreading the word about the crime to Kjellberg’s tens of millions of followers.
"Subscribe to PewDiePie" is a meme that encompasses a misled belief that it's a fight for the disenfranchised; those constantly being pushed down. It's David vs Goliath. It's used on boards like 8chan as a rallying cry. It doesn't belong to PDP anymore — but we need to examine it— julia 🤔 alexander (@loudmouthjulia) March 15, 2019
Significant portions of the manifesto appear to be an elaborate troll, written to prey on the mainstream media’s worst tendencies. As the journalist Robert Evans noted, “This manifesto is a trap … laid for journalists searching for the meaning behind this horrific crime. There is truth in there, and valuable clues to the shooter’s radicalization, but it is buried beneath a great deal of, for lack of a better word, ‘shitposting.’”
Shitposting is a slang term used to describe the act of posting trollish and usually ironic content designed to derail a conversation or elicit a strong reaction from people who aren’t in on the joke. Certain aspects of the shooter’s manifesto fall into this category. He includes Navy Seal Copypasta, a meme that originated on 4chan. He claims that Spyro: Year of the Dragon, a video game, taught him ethno-nationalism and that Fortnite taught him to “floss on the corpses,” referring to a viral dance move from the game. These absurd references are meant to troll readers.
One more thought: the shooter makes repeated references to the “remove Kebab” meme, which is based on a propaganda video produced by Serb nationalist forces during the Bosnian War & Bosnian Genocide in 90s. Meshes w/ Obilić references & clear Breivik influence.— Jasmin Mujanović (@JasminMuj) March 15, 2019
The shooter also credits the far-right personality Candace Owens with helping to “push me further and further into the belief of violence over meekness.” Though the shooter could be a genuine fan of Owens, who has been known to espouse right-leaning views on immigration and gun control, this reference might be meant to incite Owens’s critics to blame her.
That doesn’t mean the racism expressed throughout the 74-page manifesto isn’t genuine. But the complexities of the crime are still unfolding, and as the New York Times journalist Kevin Roose cautioned, “The NZ shooter’s apparent manifesto is thick with irony and meta-text and very easy to misinterpret.” Unfortunately, when journalists report on these horrific acts, the shooter’s hateful messages are sometimes amplified in the process. But the origins of that hate and the shooter’s public postings do need to be examined, even when taking them at face value is difficult.
Mass killers have long exploited the media environments they operate within. The Zodiac killer gained notoriety by persuading newspapers to publish his cryptic messages. In 2015, a shooter in Virginia killed people during a live television broadcast.
As the internet and social media have democratized access to information, much of it spreads without necessary context. As the Verge writer Elizabeth Lopatto noted in 2015, “Our interactions with these killers were mediated by huge media gatekeepers—their manifestos were left at their homes, or sent to newspapers and TV stations. If the manifestos appeared at all, they were quoted from, rather than released in full. This is no longer the case.”
While this system of gatekeeping itself was undoubtedly problematic, since many of the gatekeepers upheld norms and power structures built on privilege, technology has upended our media environment so quickly that many people are ill-equipped to handle the new information environment. We’ve seen the consequences of this play out in the rise of fake news, thriving misinformation campaigns, and bizarre viral hoaxes warped by trolls to capitalize on people’s worst fears.
Before people can even begin to grasp the nuances of today’s internet, they can be radicalized by it. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can send users barreling into fringe communities where extremist views are normalized and advanced. Because these communities have so successfully adopted irony as a cloaking device for promoting extremism, outsiders are left confused as to what is a real threat and what’s just trolling. The darker corners of the internet are so fragmented that even when they spawn a mass shooting, as in New Zealand, the shooter’s words can be nearly impossible to parse, even for those who are Extremely Online.