It is a depressing fact now that mass shootings generally tend to follow a standard chain of events. Almost always, it will be revealed that the perpetrator has a record of domestic abuse, or that they were radicalized online, redpilled via anonymous forums like /pol/ or 8chan, or via YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which provides an endless buffet of rage-inducing testimonials. Mining a shooter’s social-media history on Facebook, or Twitter, or Gab, or wherever, will often reveal warning signs and foreshadowing. In the case of the Christchurch shooting, the alleged perpetrator posted an explicitly pro-fascist, Islamophobic manifesto online prior to the attack.
These digital clues often surface quickly, because social media is ubiquitous. Participation in contemporary society practically requires internet access and platform usage. One might be tempted to say, incorrectly, that the Christchurch shooter “masterminded” his attack for “virality” — but the simpler explanation is that trolling tactics take many forms, and they can apply to mass violence as much as to anything else. It would be a mistake to treat the internet-ness of this attack as some new phenomenon rather than as a reflection of the fact that memes and virality are common ways of communicating and altering discourse and have been for years. Saying that this shooting was “designed for social media” is like saying a car was “designed for roads.”
Shortly before the attack, which was livestreamed from a camera the shooter wore on his head, the shooter posted a link to a lengthy manifesto on 8chan, an anonymous forum for people too hateful even for 4chan. He also linked to the Facebook livestream, writing, “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post.” That’s channer-speak for, “Time to stop posting racist memes and start committing actual violence.”
The shooter’s manifesto and the livestream both contain a handful of references to internet-related things. Before he begins his drive to the mosque, the shooter says, “Subscribe to PewDiePie” — a phrase that recently became a meme via the YouTuber’s fans’ fervent efforts to preserve PewDiePie’s status as the channel with the most subscriptions on that platform. In the livestream recording, the shooter plays a piece of music known among channers as “Remove Kebab” (taken from an old Serbian propaganda video) while on his way to the mosque, and later plays a remix of “Grün ist Ünser Fallschirm,” a German paratrooper song preferred by channers. The one uniquely garish twist to the shooter’s livestream was his decision to write messages directly on his weapon, which is visible in the video at all times, similar to in a video game. It’s a tactic that feels cribbed from the popularity of streaming and “Let’s Plays.”
In addition to the PewDiePie reference, the shooter also made reference to another online inspiration in his manifesto. In a self-conducted Q&A, he says that popular American conservative Candace Owens “radicalized [him] the most,” although this is almost certainly another joke, since he says, “The extreme actions she calls for are too much, even for my tastes.”
Asking himself whether or not he was driven to violence by popular media, the shooter sarcastically writes, “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.” Just to make clear that he is being sarcastic, the next line clarifies: “No.” In another section, he just drops in the entirety of the Navy Seal Copypasta, a parody of online tough-talk that has been floating around forums for years, and in most contexts, is a knowingly aggro response to imagined critics.
Covering mass shootings is a tricky proposition for the media, which needs to balance conveying information with denying perpetrators the attention they often crave. The Christchurch shooter himself stated that his attack and his writing were in the interest of “further destabilizing and polarizing Western society.” This is the same general MO — shitposting to exacerbate tensions on social media and muddy the waters — of groups like the Internet Research Agency, the Russian-government-backed troll farm. The shooter writes that he is aware the attack will heighten the intense debate over the Second Amendment in the U.S., a target shared by the aforementioned Russian group. The shooter’s plainly stated desire to murder Muslims — due to his (needless to say) erroneous belief that they represent a threat to white people — and to create confusion and further polarization seems like the most important component of his manifesto to pay attention to, rather than whatever social media content he might invoke.