Read: Nazis have always been trolls
It’s tempting to call the Poway shooter a copycat. He even used many of the same file-sharing services as Tarrant, and promised to live-stream the attack as the Christchurch shooter had done (the stream doesn’t appear to have worked).
But this is 8chan, where irony and dissimulation rule. Leaving behind a cache of semi-concealed documents that betray an extremist ideology offers days of fodder for journalists, media sleuths, and even other 8chan “anons” to pore over. When my colleague Taylor Lorenz and I each wrote about the Christchurch shooting in the hours following it, we both went to great lengths to distance our reporting from credulity. That’s what the 8channers wanted, after all: to incite an elaborate troll, as Lorenz called it. To incite the media to blindly post and repeat Tarrant’s message.
Even the memes themselves became second order after Saturday’s attack. Like Tarrant, the Poway shooter reportedly invoked the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” catchphrase, a decontextualized reference to the popular YouTuber’s own run-ins with anti-Semitism and white supremacy. PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, called for an end to the meme the day after the Poway shooting, an act that spawned dozens more media stories memorializing the symbol further. The following day, a plane was spotted over New York City towing a banner that displayed the message.
In the past, would-be terrorists were targeted and recruited based on their susceptibility to the support of and inclusion in a group that hoped only to use them for an end. This phenomenon is typically called “radicalization,” the adoption of an increasingly extreme ideology that can eventually lead to the perpetration of violence. But on 8chan, even radicalization is done with self-awareness; the Poway shooter claims to have been radicalized in 18 months. An ordinary person unfamiliar with the perversity of 8chan would be forgiven for wondering if it even qualifies as radicalization when the radicalized is claiming to have known the whole time that he was being duped. And yet, that very duplicity is at the heart of much of the chatter on 8chan.
This is not the duplicity of dissimulation. These terrorists and those that consort with them are not trying to avoid discovery, or mask intent, or even avoid capture. They bask in the uncertain wink-and-nod of their threats, their comments, or their tributes—“Get the high score,” an anon responded to the San Diego shooter’s post—in the hope of shrouding the very idea of a threat, or a comment, or a tribute in uncertainty.
Read: Why Sri Lanka was probably not retaliation for Christchurch
As 8chan’s activity becomes less talk and more action, some contend that the group will incite even more real-world violence. Unfortunately, that does seem likely. But in the meantime, another consequence arises too: The quantity and frequency of online speech make it difficult, if not impossible, to filter and discern the earnestly dangerous messages from accidents, or jokes, or misconstruals. That’s not just the case on 8chan, where posts are crafted explicitly for their anarchic qualities. It’s also true on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, and everywhere else online. What something “really means” has become less important than all the possible meanings a planet’s worth of potential readers might divine from it.