A Mass Murder for the Age of Sh**posting

Armed police walk following a shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. (Martin Hunter/SNPA/REUTERS)
Christchurch was a modern horror, and it requires a modern response.

Two days before the murder of more than 49 Muslims in two New Zealand mosques, the apparent shooter — one of four people currently detained in connection with the attacks — uploaded several videos to his Twitter account. He then published his manifesto on the 8chan imageboard and Twitter. During the shooting, he set up a live-stream, recording the event and broadcasting it on Facebook Live.

As the news broke, dazed, ordinary people looking for information stumbled upon and shared the Twitter account, screenshots of the manifesto, and the video before any of the platforms that hosted them could stop it, making the massacre go viral. Christchurch was a distinctly modern horror.

And, as with anything modern, people were unsure how to react. The attack almost resembled past terrorist incidents, but parted with them in bizarre ways. Like Anders Breivik’s, this shooter’s manifesto was a white-supremacist clarion call — but it doubled as a series of in-jokes meant for frequenters of the politics forums on 4chan and 8chan. Like the ISIS beheadings, the video was gruesome and sickening — but it doubled as a hyperreal homage to first-person-shooter video games and was captioned with a Serbian-nationalist meme. Like Cesar Sayoc’s, this shooter’s Twitter account provided a window into the time he spent on the online right — but rather than being compiled over several months in an organic portrait of the terrorist’s habits, it was self-consciously curated in the course of a day. Even for ideologically motivated violence — even for white-supremacist violence — Christchurch seemed novel.

Nobody in the press wants to further this man’s goals, and everyone agrees that caution is paramount when discussing events this delicate. So what should we do? One approach is to avoid sharing any of the shooter’s online output, the goal being to minimize any potential social contagion and to prevent people from stumbling upon his twisted beliefs and being radicalized. Insofar as the shooting was a performance, we want to minimize its audience; insofar as it was “fundamentally thoughtless,” we want to avoid attributing any unearned logic to its perpetrator.

Those guardrails are important to keep in mind. But just as it’s important also to understand that the shooter was a fascist, it is, I think, equally important to understand that the shooter made certain choices in his presentation of the attack because he expected people to react to it in certain ways. The shooter says he carried out the attack for “my people,” because he believes that Muslim migration to European countries constitutes an “invasion” for which he wished to exact revenge. But he also included a number of ironic tropes intended to signal to his in-group and obscure what he was thinking to the out-group, only widening the cultural gulf between the two.

Luckily, these signals aren’t impenetrable. Some of what the shooter wrote in his manifesto was “sh**posting,” low-quality online trolling designed to shock those who aren’t sufficiently desensitized or in the know. The gleeful cruelty of the alt-right’s sh**posting in 2016, for instance, fooled mainstream journalists who couldn’t imagine people being glib about death threats or ethnostate advocacy. Their defensive and outraged reactions to something ostensibly ironic fueled the thing they were trying to stamp out. Sh**posting is ironic, vacuous. But it can also conceal something darker, as the apparent shooter’s 8chan post reveals: “Well lads, it’s time to stop sh**posting and time to make a real life effort post.”

If the mindset of the effort-poster is understandable — he’s an old-fashioned fanatic, like Breivik or Theodore Kaczynski — the mindset of the sh**poster is understandably confusing. And after this shooting, the retreat in some corners to preexisting partisan frames demonstrated that confusion. For example, the tendency to make every mass shooting, however international, a referendum on American gun-control policy is currently on display, but the shooter says explicitly that he hoped this would happen in the aftermath of his shooting because he believes a fear among white Americans that their gun rights are insecure will one day be the catalyst for a race war in the U.S.

Meanwhile, there are already calls to deplatform two people mentioned in the manifesto, Swedish YouTuber Pewdiepie and Turning Point USA communications director Candace Owens, from social media. But astute observers have discerned the shooter’s claims that Pewdiepie and Owens drove him to action to be sarcastic. Did he intend to draw extra attention to them, to convince social-media platforms to jettison them, and to create a backlash among their fanbases? As with the gun debate, the shooter might have been trying to provoke a response that would radicalize his in-group and drive others into its arms.

How can we know when the shooter was being sincere and when he was kidding? The writer Robert Evans makes a convincing distinction:

It is possible, even likely that the author was a fan of Owens’s videos: she certainly espouses anti-immigrant rhetoric. But in context seems likely that his references to Owens were calculated to spark division, and perhaps even violence, between the left and the right. At multiple points in the manifesto the author expresses the hope that his massacre will spark further attempts at gun control in the United States, which he believes will lead to gun confiscation and a civil war. He believes this civil war would be the best opportunity destroy the American “melting pot”. This idea is repeated often enough that it seems to be something the author legitimately believes in.

Given the tone surrounding the Candace Owens passage, it seems clear that it was “bait”, thrown out to attract attention on social media and sow further political division.

This doesn’t mean the conversations about gun policy and social-media moderation should be off-limits simply because the shooter wanted to provoke them. But we should bear his potential intentions in mind. Like disinformation campaigns that seek to exploit partisan divisions, the manifesto is acting as a wedge in our most contentious, divisive policy debates. It is simultaneously sincere and trollish in ways that appear to contradict each other but actually are mutually reinforcing.

Like others before him, the shooter wanted to commit eliminationist violence in service of a white-supremacist dream. But I’m left thinking he also wanted to deepen existing conflicts in a way that will prompt a cycle of overreach and radicalization that culminates in other people like him deciding to one day join him. We should be able to condemn the evil ideology he represents while also being careful not to accidentally become vectors of it ourselves — whether that means uncritically sharing a manifesto, or unwittingly behaving as the shooter anticipated, or unduly attributing to it any special power, any undeserved mysteriousness.

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