How a toxic ‘fight club’ of internet trolls enabled the New Zealand mosque shooting

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The New Zealand mosque shooting may have played out live on Facebook, but it was born out of 8chan, one of the self-described “darkest reaches” of the internet where uncensored racism, misogyny and conspiracy theories have encouraged multiple mass killers.

The mosque shooter’s fellow 8chan users didn’t complain when they watched him kill 50 praying Muslims in a live-streamed video. They egged him on with racist jokes and memes, then saved the video so they could share it more widely. And while police ultimately arrested the suspected gunman, they may never be able to take down the trans-national network of trolls that enabled him on sites like 8chan.

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“I will carry out an attack against the invaders, and will even livestream the attack via Facebook,” an anonymous user posted on 8chan’s “politically incorrect” forum last Friday, ahead of the mosque attack in Christchurch.

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The user linked to a Facebook account belonging to brenton.tarrant.9, and shared links to a lengthy manifesto filled with neo-Nazi in-jokes, conspiracy theories about “white genocide” and references to far-right online culture.

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The Facebook video — and the shooting — started streaming a short time later, and ended with the deaths of 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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Many users on 8chan applauded the massacre as it happened, and celebrated it afterwards with approving messages and Nazi-themed cartoon memes. “Good shooting, Tex,” one anonymous person wrote. Meanwhile, users re-posted the video millions of times on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, a similar site to 8chan. YouTube reportedly saw the video uploaded once per second, while Facebook knocked down nearly 3-million uploads within the first 24 hours after the attack.

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“There’s no separation between the online and offline violence — the trolling behaviour and the terrorist act,” said Jessica A. Johnson, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington who studies anger in young white men. She says 8chan is part of a global network for far-right extremists who see the mosque shooting as a big “inside joke” – one they can participate in by sharing the video.

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“It’s opening a door for people to participate in it themselves … in the way they’re circulating these clips,” Johnson told Global News.

“I consider them to be cultivating a fight club-type atmosphere that’s gone public, which actually makes it more ‘fun.'”

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8chan is similar to 4chan and Gab, two other online communities where white supremacy and misogyny are discussed openly. These sites spawned the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories, and have been linked to mass killings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh (11 dead), on a sidewalk in Toronto (10 dead) and at a mosque in Quebec City (six dead). The Christchurch shooter even wrote the name of the Quebec City killer, Alexandre Bissonnette, on his gun.

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Many politicians have called for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to be held accountable for the racist content published on their platforms. But much of that content is bubbling up from a darker, uglier corner of the internet that remains almost entirely uncensored.

Here’s why it’s so tough to clean out those toxic corners of the web where white supremacy, misogyny and conspiracy theories have helped inspire so much violence.

What is 8chan?

The website 8chan describes itself as “the darkest reaches of the internet” where a wide range of offensive content is allowed, so long as it doesn’t violate U.S. law. It’s home to members of the misogynist “GamerGate” group, and it was briefly de-listed from Google’s search index in 2015 after child porn was allegedly posted on the site.

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8chan is a spinoff of 4chan, a similar image-based messaging board where users push the limits of discussion around a wide range of topics, from pop culture to pornography to politics — a category named “politically incorrect” on both sites.

Many users compete to “troll” one another on these sites with extremely offensive jokes and memes that occasionally surface on more mainstream sites such as Reddit or Twitter. Pepe the Frog, for instance, was co-opted on these sites and turned into a symbol of white supremacy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Johnson says these extreme tongue-in-cheek jokes help tie the community together. “It’s not just about making other people upset who are outside of the inside joke. It’s also to cultivate an intensified sensation by virtue of being part of the inside joke,” she said.

Users are identified only by numbers, and their identities remain anonymous. The result is two “politically incorrect” communities steeped in extreme views, where users can share white supremacist memes, spin conspiracy theories and encourage one another to commit acts of violence without fear of public reproach.

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Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, says the mosque shooter was clearly steeped in the hateful culture of 8chan.

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“It’s pretty clear the person involved here was radicalized online,” she told The Associated Press last week.

“The conversations in these chat rooms and message boards, with in-jokes and memes, are part of a cultivation of a certain kind of radical person in these spaces.”

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Johnson says these sites are filled with threats of violence, so it’s extremely difficult to spot an attack before it occurs.

“You can’t tell a joke from a threat,” she said.

On Wednesday, for instance, an anonymous 8chan user attempted to shame other users for failing to “accelerate” the violence triggered in New Zealand. “Are we going to patiently sit around for another 8 years until the next one of us is going to do something?” the individual wrote.

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Another user rejected the suggestion and said the community is “one of peace.”

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Former FBI agent Michael German says it’s “remarkable” how openly people discuss violence on sites like 8chan. He says it’s extremely difficult to keep up with all the threats and discussions of violence because there are so many, and they often don’t amount to anything. However, a threatening post can become a good piece of evidence if it does lead to an attack, German says.

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“Those channels leave breadcrumbs that law enforcement and researchers can track,” said German, who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning, non-partisan think tank at New York University Law School. German previously worked as an undercover agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups.

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German says users on these sites are usually very technologically advanced, so it’s often hard for law enforcement to track their location or determine their exact identities. However, he says the white supremacist movement is a trans-national problem that will continue to crop up in different parts of the world because of its strong online network.

How 8chan helped spread the mosque shooting video

Facebook revealed on Monday that 8chan users likely watched the shooting live without reporting it, then saved the video so it could be re-uploaded 1.5 million times over the following day. The social media company says fewer than 200 people watched the video live and 4,000 watched it overall before it was taken down. The video was not flagged to Facebook’s censors until 29 minutes after the stream started.

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“We continue to work around the clock to prevent this content from appearing on our site, using a combination of technology and people,” said Chris Sonderby, vice-president and deputy general counsel at Facebook, in a statement on Monday.

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Users uploaded the shooting video to YouTube at least once per second in the hours after the attack, the Washington Post reported.

“This was a tragedy that was almost designed for the purpose of going viral,” Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, told the Post.

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Johnson says the mosque shooter was clearly trying to inspire his fellow 8chan users to spread the video by filling his manifesto with in-jokes and references to white-supremacist conspiracy theories.

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“It’s not just spreading hate, it’s also intensifying a kind of desire to participate … in networking,” she said.

German says it’s tempting to blame social media companies, but he compared that to “blaming the telephone.”

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, explained in a series of tweets after the shooting that it’s extremely difficult for the company’s algorithms to stop every version of the video. He estimated that big tech companies were blocking 99 per cent of the uploads, but some watermarked or edited versions were still slipping through.

“What you are seeing on the major platforms is the water leaking around thousands of fingers poked in a dam,” he said.

To ban or not to ban

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for the world to present a “united front” against the spread of hate on social media, where the threat of white supremacy can transcend borders and trigger violence in many different countries.

“This is not just an issue for New Zealand,” Ardern said earlier this week. “Social media platforms have been used to spread violence (and) material that incites violence. All of us, I think, need to present a united front.”

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Several internet service providers in New Zealand and Australia have already blocked 8chan, 4chan and LiveLeak for hosting the shooting video. However, other countries have yet to follow suit.

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Sites like 8chan and 4chan are much more difficult to hold accountable than Facebook, because they are largely anonymous grassroots websites with no major corporate presence.

German says censoring 8chan will only drive its technologically-advanced users to find a new platform for their conspiracy theories.

“Censorship is never very effective,” he said.

“They just find another channel.”

Johnson echoed that sentiment, saying that it’s impossible to stamp out these communities, either on the internet or in the real world. “It’s all about conspiratorial brotherhood,” she said. “It’s a bonding mechanism for these guys. That’s why it doesn’t go away.”

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters