We need to understand online fascism and we need to fight it

Author Jeff Sparrow delved into the horrors of the manifesto behind last year's Christchurch shootings. In new book Facists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, he uncovers the durable model for self-replicating terrorism that we should expect to see in the UK

In the manifesto published online before the murder of 51 people in two New Zealand mosques last year, the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre included a strange FAQ about his ideas.

“Are you a fascist?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes,” he answered himself. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist is an actual fascist. I am sure the journalists will love that.”

As soon as I read that passage, I knew I wanted to write a book. For, in fact, most journalists didn’t “love” his confession. It was far more common to read media descriptions of the perpetrator as an ‘extremist’, ‘radical’ or ‘anti-Muslim activist’ than a ‘fascist’.

He has established, it seems to me, a durable model for self-replicating terrorism, a pattern that we should expect to repeat, including here in the UK

In some ways, that was understandable. Immediately after the killings, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern pledged never to say the perpetrator’s name. Many commentators thought that his manifesto, like the footage of his murders, should be ignored, not dignified by study. I disagreed, partly because the perpetrator’s writing offered a window into an ‘actual fascism’ usually hedged behind layers of irony.  

In his first courtroom appearance after the killings, the alleged perpetrator posed for the cameras with his shackled hand making the ‘OK’ symbol. At one stage, internet trolls had tried to prank anti-racists by claiming (falsely) the common gesture represented ‘white power’. Later, fascists began themselves using the sign, deploying it simultaneously as a joke and as a real emblem of hatred.

It was typical of the strategy that allowed far-right ideas to spread from sites like 4chan and 8chan, where a humour based on supposedly apolitical transgression helped normalise fascist memes.

But the circulation of these memes – like the growth of the online right more generally – also depended on the inability of ‘normies’ to understand internet culture.

That was another reason, it seemed to me, for the media to talk more, not less, about fascism, so as to help the community recognise what they were seeing.

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When I read the perpetrator’s manifesto, I was shocked by the sophistication of his strategy. We know that he’d followed closely the attempts by other fascists to build offline movements following Donald Trump’s victory, a win facilitated by alt-right publications like breitbart – but, after the murder of activist Heather Heyer at Charlottesville in 2017, he recognised that, in the English-speaking world, fascists would struggle to turn their online support into a mass movement. His solution was terrorism –but a particular kind of terrorism. In the past, gun massacres, in the form they take today, were vanishingly rare. The forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen says that they “do not even begin to appear until the 20th century and only emerge as a recurring theme in the last 30 years”. 

No consensus exists to explain that spread. But it seems plausible to me that, in an economic and social environment in which many feel alienated and impotent, violence allows damaged individuals to experience a power and intensity absent from their everyday life.

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Certainly, unstable men now turn, in a way that their fathers and grandfathers did not, to a particular psychological script: one in which a would-be killer stockpiles guns and ammunition, assembles a uniform, writes a list of grievances and then opens fire in a public place until he’s killed or (more rarely) captured. That, I realised, was key to the Christchurch perpetrator’s plan. Just as earlier fascist activists had recognised troll culture as a milieu from which to recruit, he identified the gun massacre as a vehicle for fascist politics. With his own attack, he followed the traditional script but gave each element a distinctive, didactic twist. When he posted pictures of guns, he displayed fascist slogans on them; when he wrote a document, he didn’t complain about workmates or family but outlined the history and philosophy of fascism. He livestreamed his murders in footage itself studded with 8chan memes. The ghastly clip was designed to fascinate young men already attracted to violence, encouraging them to believe that if by carrying out a similar atrocity they’d be transformed from hapless losers into fascist supermen, going out in blaze of glory to save the white race. It continues to circulate in far-right forums, alongside his manifesto. That’s why I think we need to keep talking about fascism.

The Fourth Reich will not come to power through small-scale acts of terrorism committed by young men recruited from the internet. Nevertheless, the Christchurch murderer has now directly inspired similar killings in California, Texas,  Norway and Germany – precisely as he had hoped. He has established, it seems to me, a durable model for self-replicating terrorism, a pattern that we should expect to repeat, including here in the UK.

There’s no simple way to prevent the lone-wolf terror that begins with a young man reading memes online. But, after writing about Christchurch, I’m more convinced than ever that power requires knowledge. Online fascism constitutes a genuine threat. We need to understand it to fight it.

Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre by Jeff Sparrow is out now (Scribe, £9.99)

Image: Joseph Joyce