Christchurch terrorist was member of online ‘hotbed for radicalisation’
The online messaging forum where Christchurch terrorist suspect Brenton Tarrant announced his intentions has been labelled a “hotbed for far-right radicalisation”, as users continue to praise the massacre of 49 people at two mosques on Friday.
Tarrant posted links to a manifesto on the messaging site 8chan early on Friday morning, promising to “carry out an attack” which he subsequently livestreamed on Facebook.
“It’s been a long ride… you are all top blokes,” he added.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid told mainstream social media companies “enough is enough” after footage of the terrorist attack in Christchurch spread rapidly across the networks. But, more than 12 hours after the shooting, 8chan users were still praising Tarrant for his murder spree.
A Home Office spokesman said: “It is illegal to publish terrorist propaganda online and we condemn in the strongest of terms the role that these kinds of forums have played in promoting violent extremism and allowing this sickening content to be shared.”
“He was very active not just in the mainstream social media platforms but especially also on some of the fringe platforms that serve as hotbeds for far-right radicalisation,” said Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank focused on finding solutions to “extremism and polarisation”.
“Unfortunately, I have to say we almost expected something like this to happen after monitoring these groups and these online spaces… the hate speech dynamic has really accelerated and we’ve seen calls for violence on a lot of these alternative tech platforms.”
8chan was created as a forum for free speech by an American programmer in 2013, making all users anonymous by default and allowing them to create new message boards on different topics.
But the focus on free speech and believing “the establishment” is “too politically correct” means sites like 8chan, 4chan and other fringe platforms “have become safe-havens and self-reinforcing radicalisation bubbles,” said Ms Ebner.
As such, they have been the subject of continued controversy in recent years as extremists flocked to the platforms for their lack of regulations, leading to praise for US school shootings and terrorist attacks, as well as discussion of conspiracy theories, racist memes, harassment campaigns, co-ordinated hacking and images of child sexual abuse.
More than 12 hours after the shooting in Christchurch, hundreds of 8chan users had commented in a “mega thread” about the massacre, started by someone who posted Tarrant’s video, a list of “highlights”, a swastika and picture of alt-right icon Pepe the Frog.
Both Tarrant’s manifesto and video were littered with in-jokes and references to 8chan discussions, according to far-right extremism expert Robert Evans, writing on investigative journalism website Bellingcat.
“They are meant to distract attention from his more honest points, and to draw the attention of his real intended audience,” wrote Evans, describing Tarrant’s attack as “inspirational terrorism”.
And among the racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and anti-semitic comments in the celebratory megathread on 8chan, some users described Tarrant as an “accelerationist” for a race war.
“The only way he could have done this better is if he’d claimed he was doing it to get revenge for a gay lover killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting,” wrote one user, referring to the 2016 Florida massacre perpetrated by an American who swore allegiance to Islamic State.
“Muslims are going to shoot up churches across the west in the coming weeks,” they added.
Damian Collins, the Tory chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said: “These platforms are being used to disseminate the vilest content and make people aware of its existence.
“We should look at companies like that and say for them to allow their platforms to be used in that way is damaging to society. It’s hugely harmful.”
He called for a regulator to have the power to sanction companies allowing the spread of “harmful content”, adding that the “ultimate sanction” would be to bar them from the internet.
“The Government has been clear that tech companies need to act more quickly to remove terrorist content online and that should include blocking access to the platforms that promote it,” the Home Office spokesman added.
The Government is expected to publish its Online Harms White Paper in the coming months as a precursor to legislation.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all condemned the attack, and said they were working to remove any affiliated content – but the owners of 8chan did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms Ebner said digital policy legislation could help in the long term, but mainstream platforms needed to make more effort to identify and remove “violence-inciting” images, as well as messages.
More broader societal efforts are also needed to encourage a process of de-radicalisation, she added.
“In terms of the aims of the perpetrator, he’s driving communities apart and that’s very similar to what jihadists have been doing and really goes back to the heart of the strategy behind any terrorist attack,” she said.
“He made it so explicit in his manifesto, he said he wants to provoke radical change through creating or worsening the existing divisions. So I think there’s a big challenge for us in civil society to avoid that he reaches his goals.”