The suspect in the New Zealand mosque shootings used disinformation to manipulate the media response and spreading white supremacist ideas long after the killing had stopped.
All he needed was a forum post, a rambling manifesto, some social media accounts, and a GoPro camera.
Other white supremacists killers, including Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik, have released their own manifestoes and littered social media platforms with clues about their motivations. But the suspect in the Christchurch terrorist attack went much further by trying to control the narrative about what he did.
In an echo of ISIS and Al Qaeda, alleged terrorist Brenton Tarrant staged the attack for the media, filming it and then releasing his own message about it, faster than the press or authorities could fact-check. He jammed dozens of references into his manifesto, calling himself an “ecofascist” and trolling reporters with the claim that he drew inspiration from conservative personality Candace Owens. The shooter apparently knew that immediately after mass shootings, journalists often face a deficit of information on the suspect, and eventually compile a complete picture based on interviews and confirmed reports.
Much of his manifesto was set up like a press conference, addressing questions from imaginary “supporters” and “detractors.” Rather than rely on the media to deduce his politics through the mass shooting and his social media profiles, the manifesto’s writer answered a series of questions on every shade of his political beliefs, from his takes on socialism to his thoughts on Donald Trump. All of those answers were sandwiched between dozens of pages of rote attacks on Muslims and calls for violence, with the manifesto’s newsier elements guaranteeing a wider circulation for the entire document.
The manifesto itself is filled with mentions of historical events, terrorist attacks, and racist ideology that potentially sympathetic readers can plug into search engines. Even the suspect’s guns were covered with writings that double as potential search terms, referencing centuries-old battles and the names of anti-Muslim murderers.
Live video of the shooter killing his victims went viral on social media sites after he posted it, replicating across video sites and defying moderators caught off guard by the attack. Anyone interested in the killing could find out about the shooter’s motivations through the manifesto, which was mirrored at a number of download sites to ensure it would remain available even as news of the massacre spread.
By Friday morning, the shooting and its accompanying manifesto had set off a series of fights in the media and online. Donald Trump Jr. liked a far-right YouTuber’s tweet about the attack, which falsely claimed that the shooter admired communism.
Someone with advance knowledge of the attack announced the killings in advance on the forum 8chan, linking to the manifesto and a Facebook account where he then live-streamed the shooting.
The recently registered social media accounts were front-loaded with white supremacist talking points. The linked manifesto was laden with 4chan memes and apparently ironic references to contradictory figures and ideologies he claimed to admire.
The shooting suspect’s manifesto even included a meta commentary on what he was trying to accomplish, hoping that the mass shooting would raise tensions between the left and right and set off a civil war in the United States.
Those provocations include an apparently trolling mention of Owens, a controversial right-wing personality who works for conservative campus group Turning Point USA. The manifesto’s writer claimed that he had been influenced “above all” by Owens, but that he had to “disavow” her “extreme” actions.
The idea that a white supremacist would idolize Owens, who is black, strains credulity. So does the claim that the shooting suspect would actually think that Owens, a frequent White House guest whose politics tends towards run-of-the-mill Trumpism, is calling for actions too “extreme” for even him.
But the mention was enough to set off a Twitter war between Owens and her detractors, who cited the manifesto as proof that Owens had inspired the killings. Owens tweeted that the idea she was responsible for the attacks made her “LOL!”, and threatened to sue anyone who said she was to blame. Suddenly, much of the debate online was about Owens and whether her opponents were falling for the shooter’s tricks, rather than the attack itself.
The shooting also included a nod to YouTube’s biggest star, Swedish videogamer Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg. Speaking on his livestream, the shooter referenced a popular internet campaign to keep Kjellberg as YouTube’s most-subscribed channel.
“Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” the shooter said.
For livestream viewers on 8chan, the PewDiePie mention marked the shooter as a meme-addled fellow “shitposter.” But it also succeeded in tying the killings to one of the internet’s biggest stars and his fanbase. Kjellberg, who has frequently run into controversies over anti-Semitic jokes, tweeted that he was “sickened” that the shooter had mentioned him. But Kjellberg’s disavowal only earned the killer and his manifesto more notoriety, this time through Kjellberg’s 17 million Twitter followers.
Parts of the manifesto appeared completely serious. While the alleged shooter gave little other indication that he was radicalized by Owens, he wrote pages of vitriol about immigrants and Muslims and proved it with the attacks on two mosques.