Right-wing extremists use social media to spread ideology


Illustration by Derick David

Social media website have been criticized for their algorithms promoting white nationalist and white supremacist content. 

Nathan Cirian

The mass shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand that has left 50 dead and 50 injured has raised questions about how extremists use the Internet and how the actions or inactions of giant tech companies affect the spread of hateful ideologies, such as white supremacy.

The sight of large-scale massacres at the hands of far right extremists has become a common sight for many Americans. The shooting in Christchurch did not happen in the U.S., but it did echo tragedies that have happened throughout Europe and North America.

These past shootings all follow similar outlines and often come from extremists circles on the far-right, circles which primarily lurk in the corners of the Internet.

The Christchurch shooter, a 28-year-old man from Australia, streamed the massacre on Facebook Live and posted his manifesto online prior to the attack.

Copies of the video and the manifesto still exist and can be found through online searches, largely due to a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect, which states that attempts to remove, censor, and get rid of content, on the Internet in this instance, is followed with more attention and demand for said content, often resulting in the content being re-uploaded enmasse.

Michael Bugeja, a journalism professor, criticized the practices of giant tech corporations, such as Facebook and YouTube, for their role in the availability and distribution of radical and violent content.

These tech giants lack sufficient privacy and content protocols to monitor and block heinous content such as this,” Bugeja said.

Bugeja went on to mention these platforms have profit in mind, first and foremost, and the primarily goal of social media sites, such as Facebook, is to “survey and sell.”

With tragedies such as the Christchurch shooting, it is almost an innate instinct for many social media users to share, quote-tweet, and provide their own commentary on this violent and hateful content, inadvertently spreading it even further without intending to do so.

“Once this video and stream were posted, they were shared internationally across multiple social media platforms,” Bugeja said. “Those who shared might have expressed sorrow or compassion for the victims, conveyed a political stance for or against gun violence or immigration, or used memes or emoticons to express how they felt, without realizing that they might be considered digital accomplices, in as much as they were spreading the perpetrators’ hateful actions and manifesto.”

Bugeja also wrote on this topic in an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register’s Iowa View column. In the article, he criticized Facebook’s handling of the sensitive content and the technology behind it. He also called for the regulation of tech giants such as Facebook.

“Congress should institute laws that regulate these social media behemoths that seem too big to fail, even though, time and time again, they have failed us,” Bugeja said.

Amid recent criticism stemming from the Christchurch shooting, Facebook has ceded to pressure from civil rights groups and has banned outwardly white nationalist and white separatist content on its platform.

Facebook had already banned white supremacist content in the past but did not see a need to ban the previous two in its first round of bans on racist content.

The manifesto of the Christchurch shooter contained white supremacist ideas and conspiracy theories alongside memes and calls to action. The interspersing of memes and jokes among other seemingly serious content in the manifesto has led many to question the validity of the shooter’s words.

The Christchurch shooter referenced many memes and jokes of the far and alt-right while also displaying, at least seemingly, serious calls to action.

As mentioned in a prior article, the sentiments expressed by the Christchurch shooter are not foreign to Iowa State, or even the state of Iowa.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District has expressed similar views to the shooter in the past as well.

In an interview with a far-right Internet publication, Unzensuriert (Uncensored), King claimed that Western liberalism and Islam were “team[ing] up against Western civilization.”

In a follow-up question, King said, “And Western Civilization in the analytical view is a superior civilization. There is no civilization that has even come close to creating the medicine, the science, this standard of living, this Rule of Law. This is how I describe the shining city.”

This is not the first time King has claimed that the “West” was superior. King has also expressed these views in a 2016 panel on MSNBC where he claimed the “West” has contributed more to civilized society than “any other subgroup of people.”

The most noteworthy similarity between the shooter’s worldview and King’s is the belief in a far right conspiracy theory known as “The Great Replacement.”

Many far-right and alt-right Internet personalities have touched on this subject, and the discourse on birth rates in “Western countries” has been a hot-topic in their communities for a while.

The Christchurch shooter titled his manifesto after the term — a term which King has used and acknowledges as real. In the same interview with unzensuriert, King said, “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization.”

King went on to blame abortions and low birth rates in “Western” countries as well as mass legal and illegal immigration into these countries in Europe and North America.

When Unzensuriert tried to clarify whether King was talking about the “The Great Replacement,” King responded, “Great replacement, yes. These people walking into Europe by ethnic migration, 80 percent are young men. They are somebody else’s babies.”

The last sentence is a reference to a tweet from King on March 12, 2017, in which he wrote, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The first few pages of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement,” discuss the shooter’s views on the conspiracy and includes violent calls to action against, what he calls, “invaders.”  

The shooter claimed that he acted alone with the blessing of the revived version of the Knights Templar, an anti-immigration organization that derives its aesthetic from fetishization of the Crusades and those who carried out those attacks.

However, in the days following the attack in Christchurch, questions of connections between the far-right Identitarian Movement in Austria, headed by Martin Sellner, began to rise as media outlets learned about a 1,500 euro donation by the Christchurch shooter to the group. According to NBC News, Sellner received the donation in early 2018.

The Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz confirmed the existence of this donation on March 27.

We can now confirm that there was financial support and so a link between the New Zealand attacker and the Identitarian Movement in Austria,” Kurz said.

Sellner denies any involvement with the shooter besides sending a “thank you” note via email. Austrian authorities raided Sellner’s residence and confiscated his phone, computer, and other items, according to NBC News.

The Identitarian Movement is a far-right movement with different sets of organizations operating within many European countries, including Austria.

Sellner and his girlfriend, Brittany Pettibone, are not unfamiliar with the controversy that arises from their politics. Pettibone is an alt-right YouTube personality and is mentioned in the Data and Society Research Institute’s study on radical content on YouTube.

Since 2014, prominent far right and alt-right movements have produced terrorists through their hateful ideas and have used the Internet to spread their messages and, in the case of the Christchurch shooter and the 2014 Isla Vista shooting, which was carried out by a 22-year-old incel (involuntary celibate) in California, involved the use of the Internet to distribute their manifestos and videos.

These attacks are not alone. The Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, the Charleston Church shooting, and the vehicle attacks at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the incel attack in Toronto all share similar online origins as well as similar ties to far/alt-right movements and ideas.