By Emmi Bevensee
The devastating anti-Muslim attacks carried out in Christchurch in March this year were part of a trend of disaffected white men, radicalised into fascist politics through social media meme culture. The alleged shooter, now facing trial for the murder of fifty people, represents the unfortunate but logical conclusion of a phenomena that many scholars have been tracking for years. His campaign of terror is unique only in how stereotypical it is to the meme-heavy alt-right echo-system that spawned him. He is part of a movement that has both distinctly modern qualities, while being rooted in a very old political movement. Understanding this trend will help us not just to stop it, but also to realise how powerful the struggle against white supremacy truly is.
The darkest reaches of the internet
The alleged killer’s manifesto was posted to a blog called 8chan which self-describes as “The Darkest Reaches of the Internet”, and in many ways lives up to its name. It’s a place where extreme white-nationalist and fascist violence fetishists coexist with images of child sexual abuse and video game threads. Since then, his “inspirational terrorism” spawned a follow-up killer (who said so in his manifesto) who attacked a synagogue in San Diego and even copied the shooter’s form by posting a manifesto, playlist, and live-stream leaks on 8chan. The San Diego killer then posted on 8chan in turn, “Every anon reading this must attack a target while doing his best to avoid getting caught.” The San Diego terrorist claims to only have been on 8chan for a year and a half. In both cases, 8chan was quick to praise and even worship the killers.
There has been much study into how white supremacist movements bond and build culture online. One study in particular examines the long-standing white supremacist forum Stormfront in all of its divisions and shared values. Generally the story goes something like it does offline: create a collective identity that bears both shared trauma and rightful dominance, use this as a cauldron for ultra-nationalist outgroup hatred and then transform that resentment into “active measures” or political violence. People are able to collectively push the most ideologically motivated or manipulatable members into committing the real world violence they generally all support. The fundamental recipe for fascism is the same on 8chan (weaponized resentment plus entitlement) but the culture is importantly different than on Stormfront.
Stormfront tried to be somewhat internally peaceful and coherent, at least to the extent of really being supportive of each other and building individual relationships. But on 8chan, most people don’t ever take the time to make a login and just use a random string-id on every login – it’s not a community in the same way. Everything is anonymised, giving people an opportunity to really express their Freudian Id. Additionally, the culture is in constant internal warfare. They are tearing each other down all of the time. They find it funny, but are still able to build up a different kind of community. That competitive culture has violent ramifications, as seen in their recycling of the “get the high score” meme in which they encourage each other to kill as many people as possible as evidenced in a response to the San Diego killer.
Users on 8chan complained that Australia’s largest ISP was DNS-blocking fascist-friendly forums like 8chan, 4chan, and Kiwifarm. Similarly they were feeling the effects of three New Zealand mobile carriers also DNS blocking the forums. While claiming just to de-rank conspiracy and state-backed media, in some cases even Facebook actively blocked people from uploading content from certain outlets known for their relationship to Russian state-backed disinformation and conspiracy campaigns such as Veterans Today.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), as anyone born into the internet knows, you can’t actually ban things from the internet. Both DNS and ip-blocks are easy to get around. That doesn’t mean we should oppose private corporations choosing what content they are willing to host and support, but just know that it doesn’t go away. You have to get at the ideology and the memes themselves.
Throughout the alleged Christchurch shooter’s manifesto he cites memes. Some of them are old-school white nationalist memes such as the Fourteen Words or references to the Bosnian Genocide. Others are edgy new memes born on 8chan. His manifesto is, in part, one long troll. His murders and trials are all extensions of the troll. Shouting things like “subscribe to pewdiepie” and throwing the alt-right distorted “OK” hand-sign are all part of their trope. He instructed the manifesto’s readers to, “Create memes, post memes, and spread memes. Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto.” The violence is inextricable from the memes because the memes are a tool to encourage ideological action in real life. Memes are just ideas simplified and designed to be more likely to spread. He’s saying, in essence, ‘spread this mind virus so that we can promote these associated actions.’
An important and often ignored quality of both modern and historical fascism is the way that it blends aspects of both the far right and the far left into what is often called by historians a “syncretic ultra-nationalism”. Usually this looks in practice like the culture of the authoritarian far-right (traditionalism, ethno-nationalism, etc) but coupled with the aesthetics and occasionally the economics of the left (environmentalism, labor rights, and communism). To the extent that economic liberalism truly believes in voluntary cooperation across all cultural differences, it is dangerous to the enclosed cultural and national borders of fascism. This is why fascism so often equates Liberalism with multi-culturalism and the Jewish elite. The far-right tends to frame fascism as fundamentally left-wing while the far-left claims the opposite. The truth is that Mussolini was a syndicalist of sorts and Hitler did appropriate many aspects of socialist thought (even though he repressed other communist and socialist parties) but they did so within the structure of far-right politics and as a means of protecting their ultra-nationalism from complexity. Fascists then tend to be politically far-right with left-wing aesthetics as a means of garnering populist support.
In modern fascism we tend to see weirder and more niche versions of this: from the nazi-communism of the ‘National Bolsheviks (nazbol)’ and their friends on the right and left, to people like the Christchurch killer seeing themselves as beyond both right and left (as stated in his manifesto). This identity of having transcended the right and the left is not fascist in and of itself, but often co-occurs with it from the “fourth political theory” of Vladimir Putin-advisor and nazbol Alexander Dugin to the third-way of national-socialists since Hitler. The meme culture of modern-fascism loves to play in these contradictions.
The Christchurch killer himself moved between appropriations of anti-imperialism, climate change, and worker’s rights to his far-right vision of the Great Replacement Theory, in which white Western cultures are being gradually replaced by multicultural globalism. Aside from a rampant misunderstanding and disrespect for what genocide actually is and has been (critical to narratives of Holocaust revisionism), it envisions a world where Western culture is simultaneously so weak that it can’t defend itself in the free-market memeplex of an increasingly interconnected world, but yet is also somehow the rightful heir to absolute authority and sheer dominance over all other races. It’s not just empirically wrong, it’s sad and uninspired. Imagine living in a world where you see difference not as an opportunity to learn about the gaps in your knowledge and grow together to solve complex problems, but as a threat to your necessarily subsidised superiority. It’s no surprise then that 25% of one sample of ‘white genocide’ tweets were by bots, and that another study of over 7 million messages found that over 30% of anti-Semitic content was perpetrated by bots. Their ideas are so bad that they need bot armies to promote them.
It’s important to understand the appeal, though, even as we see where it fails. The world is scary. Climate change is terrifying. Global leaders tend towards being inept as the result of fundamental knowledge problems of power centralisation. The global working class are ground into the pavement (at differing levels according to intersectional positionality) and so the appeal of someone utilising a shared group identity of trauma and glory has vast power. When you’re concerned about your family’s next meal, there’s an incentive to turn against someone you don’t know in a worse position, and see them as a threat to your wellbeing. Especially if someone whispers gently to your resentments and pride to justify your ideological betrayal of an imagined enemy. The fourth column is terrifying because it’s vague and everywhere: all-powerful and all-evil. The memes of 8chan are a weaponised troll of this fundamentally human fear however short-sighted it is at actually hoping to solve any problems humans face.
White nationalist ingroup preference
This meme culture espouses an extreme form of ingroup preference and a constant paranoia for the coming ‘civil war’. Many scholars of fascism classify it as believing in “palingenesis” or a mythos of rebirth, often through revolutionary ultra-nationalist violence. Smaller even than racial-nationalism, they mostly just pick a very small community and then try to constantly attack outwards and defend their micro-ingroup to survive this self-instigated violence. They tend towards being extreme versions of “preppers” or people who prepare for societal collapse. However, even though they are extremely prone to micro-ingroup preference, this is usually along racialised rather than survival-ability lines which seems confusing given their stated goals of survival.
They are very scared and infected by a range of conspiracies, so they see the whole world as a battlefield and every choice as an opportunity to dominate or be dominated. It’s hard to get across just how riddled with terror this worldview is.
But at the end of the day, we all do that to some degree. Some of us fight it and try to empathise with the ‘other’ while some people accept it as the ‘natural order’ and try to strengthen it. Fascists laugh at each other’s jokes, empathise with each other’s stories (though still limiting that empathy to the ingroup), feel pain and joy together, and so on. It’s all the same substrate as any other human. Pretending that these fascists are monstrously alien, mentally ill, or somehow deeply unintelligent are all comfort blankets even if there are ways that it it’s true, in part. They’re terrible humans who deserve the greatest degree of disdain and repression we can ethically muster, but they are still humans nonetheless.
For those of us that try to undermine other-hatred, we can also struggle to recognise our own biases and develop non-zero sum solutions to collective action problems. We all may have some of this small-group preference in us but it doesn’t diminish the severity and perversion of their distortion. For most of us, if we see someone struggling, we search for ways to lift them up with the knowledge that empowerment is generally reciprocal. This simple instinct can be a potent memetic-virus against a fascist worldview.
Propaganda and disinformation
Hate groups are using web platforms to propagandise and organise violence. The neo-nazi gathering in Charlottesville, that ultimately led to the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of countless others, was organised and propagandised over social media and Discord chats where they encouraged violent events that actually happened. The “inspirational terrorism” of the way the Christchurch killer utilised Facebook and other social media forums drives this point home even further.
Regardless of the difficulties of doing so, and the illegitimacy of their centralised power, social media giants have a duty to aggressively stem the tide of things like hate content, disinformation, and other harmful media. There is so much more they can do, and they must, because they are directly responsible for some portion of the violence facing the world today from white supremacist mass shooters to policy changes infected by disinformation warfare-fueled conspiracy theories that propagate in echo-systems.
In over a million messages in the Unicorn Riot leaks of white supremacist Discord chats, by far the most common external link was YouTube, followed just behind by Twitter. This evidence backs up the initial findings by the Alternative Influence Network report done by Data and Society which show how YouTube is utilised to undermine factual reporting and produce counter-narratives by hate groups. Facebook was there but with significantly less links, coming in closer to the next groupings of external link frequencies. Beneath that, we also see a common neo-nazi source for disinformation, Soundcloud, which they use mainly for podcasts.
In studying these links, to further emphasise the vectors of radicalisation and information sources beneath larger internet juggernauts, I omitted both mainstream social media outlets and uninteresting content hosting sites and re-mapped the results. The first interesting results we see are three hate speech-associated platforms: 4chan, Gab, and of course, 8chan. The first, 4chan is, in part, the birthplace for the alt-right and the GamerGate movement. Gab is a “free-speech” platform which has been linked to several real world racist attacks. Beneath them we see Periscope, which is where nazis who have been kicked off of YouTube go.
This is the range where we finally start to see content providers. The first two alternative “news” sites are The Daily Stormer and The Right Stuff which are both ultra-violent neo-nazi platforms. The top mainstream media outlets who place interestingly just beneath these are three conservative outlets: the UK-based Daily Mail, Breitbart, and Fox News, followed unsurprisingly by the Russian state-sponsored outlet Russia Today (RT).
Just beneath Fox is a Jewish website called The Forward, which they are likely monitoring. That is followed by a cluster of liberal media they are likely citing to make fun of or disagree with. Beneath that is Zerohedge which is a right-wing conspiracy outlet linked to botnets and targeted disinformation campaigns (Bevensee & Ross, 2018).
Most modern people are opposed to the abhorrent views of fascist movements, so its adherents are pushed out of the mainstream and into a dynamic ecosystem of individual blogspots and wordpresses, many of whom compete to gain access to funding or the legitimacy of being seen as a dissident “alternative news” press rather than just purveyors of conspiracies and pseudoscientific hate. Although the maximum number of links was close to 20k the average was closer to just 10 with most falling beneath that. The data was heavily skewed towards this decentralisation as can be seen in the below graphic. All of the tiny dots around the edge show the fascist alternative news ecosystem.
Our memes are better
We can make the internet less terrible but it’s an inherently difficult task. Malicious actors regularly innovate to avoid detection. Attribution with certainty can be impossible. Heavy-handed moderation can lead to unintended consequences both in terms of state and platform power but also in terms of accidental targets. But we have other options as well.
Fascism isn’t an enjoyable life path. You can be exposed, as the IdentifyEvropa and Panic in the Discord projects have worked to do. You lose your job. Your friends and family don’t trust you, and even if you do commit violence, it can fuel a worldwide rededication to multiculturalism. White supremacy is a losing meme even as it claws desperately for attention. Trying to find ways for humans to live together and transcend difference doesn’t have that same edgy, nihilistic appeal, but it’s a better way of living. You can make friends in surprising places instead of living every day in traumatised fear of a deeply distorted enemy.
Memes are not the preserve of fascists. There is a meme-world outside of the fascist in-group, and though they may be more corny, earnest, or sentimental, they are much closer to a universal experience. It’s easy to cringe at the virtue signalling of things like earnestness, radical empathy, solidarity, mutual-aid, but the world they espouse is objectively better. That’s why they’re so understated. It’s awkward to mention them because they’re so obviously true. They don’t require terror or even virality. But in this new world, it is necessary to fight for our better memes. Not because they’re overcompensating and in need of propaganda, but because fear can drive people away from what they know most deeply.
These memes are building a new world and not even terror can uproot them because they’re unbelievably brave. These memes are Naeem Rashid trying to stop the killer in Christchurch. These memes are Lori Gilbert-Kaye using her body to save her rabbi in the attack in San Diego. These memes are also the quiet love we show when no one else is looking. These memes are powerful because they are so much bigger than a terrified little ingroup. These memes want a better world for everyone, even the panicking, hateful, confused outgroup. That kind of humble audacity is the only way for this world to survive.
Emmi Bevensee is a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona iSchool studying machine learning and disinformation. She seeks to utilize data storytelling for social good and can be reached through her website. She was recently published in the IEEE journal for her work that utilized data-mining to study “The Alt-Right and Global Information Warfare”. More of her work can be found here.