Before entering a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the site of one of the deadliest mass murders in the country’s history, the accused gunman stopped to support a YouTube star in a video that appeared to capture the shooting .
“Remember, guys, subscribe to PewDiePie,” he said.
For an inexperienced eye, this would have seemed a strange detour.
But the people who saw the video recognized it as something completely different: a meme.
Like many of the things that the suspect seems to have done in preparation for Friday’s shooting, such as publishing a 74-page manifesto that named specific Internet figures that had influenced their views, or writing that the Fortnite video game “He trained me to be a murderer” – PewDiePie’s support served two purposes. For his followers online, it was a kind of satirical Easter egg. (“Subscribe to PewDiePie,” which began as a baseline attempt to prevent the popular YouTube artist from being dethroned as the site’s most-followed account, has become a kind of cultural multipurpose bat signal for the young people and the internet -absorbed.)
For everyone else, it was an explosive trap, a joke designed to trap innocent people and members of the media to take it too literally. The goal, if there was one, could have been to take a popular Internet figure to a blame game and increase political tensions everywhere. (In a tweet early Friday morning, PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, said: “I feel absolutely sick that this person pronounces my name”).
The details that have emerged about the shooting in Christchurch, at least 49 dead in two mosques, are horrible. But something surprising about this is the unequivocal presence of online violence and the degree of awareness that the alleged gunman seems to have been about how his act would be seen and interpreted by different Internet subcultures.
In a way, it felt like the first: a mass shooting originated on the Internet, conceived and produced in its entirety within the speech soaked with irony of modern extremism.
The alleged armed man made fun of his act on Twitter, announced it on the 8chan online message board and broadcast it live on Facebook. The images were replayed on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms rushed to remove the clips almost as fast as new copies appeared to replace them. In a statement on Twitter, Facebook said it had “quickly eliminated the Facebook and Instagram accounts of the shooter and the video,” and was eliminating the praise or support for the shooting. YouTube said it was “working vigilantly to eliminate any violent filming” of the attack. Reddit said in a statement that it was removing “content that contains links to the broadcast or video manifest.”
Even the language the suspect used to describe his attack before the fact defined it as an act of activism on the Internet. In his publication of 8chan, he referred to the filming as a “message of real life effort”. He titled an image “Screw your optics,” a reference to a line published by the man accused in the firing of the Pittsburgh synagogue who later became a species. of slogan among the neo-Nazis. And his manifesto, a neat mix of repetitive white nationalist, fascist statements and references to obscure Internet jokes, seems to have been written from the bottom of an algorithmic rabbit hole.
It would be unfair to blame the internet for this. The reasons are complex, lives are complicated and we still do not know all the details about the shooting. The New Zealand authorities have accused a man but they have not identified him. Anti-Muslim violence is not an online phenomenon, and white nationalist hatred predates 4Chan and Reddit.
But we do know that the design of Internet platforms can create and reinforce extremist beliefs. Their recommendation algorithms often direct users towards more advanced content, a cycle that results in more time spent on the application and more advertising revenue for the company. Their hate speech policies are weakly applied. And their practices to eliminate graphic videos, such as those circulated on social networks for hours after the shooting in Christchurch, despite companies’ attempts to eliminate them, are, at best, inconsistent.