On Friday, a 28-year-old Australian man went live on Facebook as he drove toward a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque where he would allegedly begin a shooting spree, killing 49 people and injuring dozens of others. "Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” the suspect remarked as he loaded guns into the back of his car.
PewDiePie, the infamous Swedish YouTuber, has been connected to a string of racist and anti-Semitic controversies over the years. The reference was among several the suspected killer made that were all seemingly intended to make his gruesome murder spree go viral. Like his reference to far-right influencer Candace Owens in a 74-page manifesto published just before the killings began, the PewDiePie quip immediately set off discussions on Twitter about whether or not the killer was trolling the media, whose coverage would inevitably follow.
No matter the killer’s intent, we should take what this disaffected individual allegedly said and wrote and did online seriously. Not only because he killed 49 people, but also because he tapped into a well-established digital feedback loop where white male violence is uploaded, distributed, consumed, and remixed by others. We often think of memes as images, funny words on funny pictures. But at their core, they are just ideas that spread. The Christchurch killer wasn’t only trying to make himself go viral. He — with extreme self-awareness — was hijacking the white male violence digital feedback loop to spread and amplify his ideas and actions.
Earlier in the video stream, the killer showed off his guns, all of them emblazoned with text. One reads, “For Rotherham Alexandre Bissonette [sic] Luca Traini.” “For Rotherham" is a reference to a child exploitation scandal that took place in the UK involving predominantly Muslim men. Alexandre Bissonnette killed six people and injured 19 more at a mosque in Quebec City in 2017. Luca Traini shot and wounded six African migrants during a shooting spree in Macerata, Italy, in 2018. Like the PewDiePie remark, these references tie him to a larger universe of far-right white nationalism and violence.
Murderers have always wanted virality. Jack the Ripper sent letters to the London papers. The Zodiac killer taunted police via the San Francisco Chronicle. The Unabomber also had a manifesto. What's new is this global, unfiltered, digital feedback loop that can instantly amplify everything. Before Friday’s carnage started, photos of the weapons were posted to Twitter. A 74-page manifesto titled “The Great Replacement" was published online. There appears to have been a post on the anonymous message board 8chan announcing the attack. “Well lads, it's time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post,” the 8chan post read. “If I don't survive the attack, goodbye, god bless, and I will see you all in Valhalla!”
As NBC’s Ben Collins noted, “After the shooter posted links to the livestream and his manifesto, 8chan users cheered him on in the posts immediately following his threat.”
Like his guns sharpied in silver, covered in references, the gunman’s manifesto too is a sprawling, garbled self-aware mess of white nationalist symbology pulled from every dark corner of the internet. It’s full of Wikipedia links. It reads like an unhinged blog post. Several sections devolve almost into nonsensical racist poetry. It opens with an FAQ. It has jokes in it.
In one section, titled “Were you taught violence and extremism by video games, music, literature, cinema?” the author replies, “Yes, Spyro The Dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism. Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies. No.”
Sarcastically self-aware, that remark seems intentionally designed for use in pieces exactly like this one. And there are others. In a section titled “Were/are you a fascist?” the author replies, “Yes. For once, the person that will be called a fascist is an actual fascist. I am sure the journalists will love that.”
To take the typo-filled, rambling manifesto at face value, Friday’s attack was inspired by the white nationalist concept of “white genocide." It’s a far-right conspiracy theory that’s common online, linking junk evolutionary science to fears of a looming race war and the decline of the white Aryan race. The suspected gunman describes himself as a partisan defending against an occupying force. The manifesto cites immigration and fertility rates across Europe. It links out to articles about recent European terror attacks.
But to say that the manifesto’s author was radicalized online would be like saying the tip of an iceberg rose directly from the surface of the water. And in the same way, to ignore the role the internet has played in Friday’s attack would be like saying you don’t need water to make ice. It’s all a piece of the other.
Until we pull apart the loop, we’re trapped in all of this will keep happening.
The philosopher and author Timothy Morton coined the term “hyperobject” to describe a concept so huge that it’s almost impossible to grasp its entirety. Global warming is the best example. The British documentarian Adam Curtis uses the term “hyperobject" in his film Hypernormalization to describe the automated financial and political mechanisms that control modern life.
The hatred that inspired the Christchurch massacre on Friday is another “hyperobject." We see its corners, its edges, but it’s become so massive and so embedded in our culture that it’s impossible to chart. White nationalists marching in Charlottesville. Gamergate. Jewish cemeteries defaced in France. Coordinated internet campaigns against women superhero movies. Videos of white police officers shooting unarmed black people. We see these things individually, but struggle to wrangle them as part of a larger, toxic whole. YouTube and Twitter will scramble to remove video clips of the horror in Christchurch. Facebook will purge — again and again — the killer’s manifesto as it is repeatedly uploaded. But white male violence, a defining crisis of the last few decades, will continue to fester online and propagate. In the open. In the dark. Everywhere.
Consider the Christchurch manifesto. A close read paints a picture of an extremely average, very angry working-class white Australian man in his late twenties who spent a lot of time on Google. He’s particularly fixated on the writings of 20th-century British fascist Oswald Mosley. He is obsessed with fertility rates and cases of sexual assault perpetrated by Muslim men against white women. Most of his political views seem to be cobbled together from hyperpartisan Facebook news chum. It is all part of the loop.
He’s a dog being wagged by whatever he sees online.
The suspected Christchurch gunman writes that he was most heavily inspired by Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik. But his demented online publicity plan for his terror attack is almost identical to those of Elliot Rodger or Dylann Roof — two other mass murderers. He modeled what he saw. Remixed it. Pushed it forward. He created a social media trail. He filmed himself. He dumped all of his promotional materials on 8chan. He knew the game. He knew the loop. He lives in it.
And now the already-radicalized denizens of Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, Discord, or Gab will begin collecting everything the media has put together on the gunman. They will build digital shrines to him. They will turn him into a meme. They will turn his ramblings into copypasta.
Toxic online influencers will pick up on it and start winking about it. A Twitch streamer or a YouTuber might drop a joke or two about the whole thing months down the line. It’ll be edgy. There will be rumors of crisis actors and blurry photos with red circles. Survivors might start getting weird phone calls or strange cars parked outside of their homes. The majority of us will move on.
But the odds are that others will not. There will be a new horror. More will die. And then we will do this all over again.