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The New Zealand shooter wrote a manifesto. An extremism expert explains what it means.

“The trick is how do you cover this ... without simply redistributing a piece of propaganda.”

Aftermath Of Mosque Terror Attack Felt In Christchurch
A newspaper outside a courthouse in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019.
Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The 28-year-old man charged in the murders of dozens in Christchurch, New Zealand, appears to have posted a manifesto to his social media account before he attacked two mosques.

The rambling, strangely written document is filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric and spans nearly 80 pages. Part of it is formatted as a Q&A, with its author presumably asking and answering the questions. It is also laced with memes, combining deep xenophobic hatred with the irony and the irreverence of social media.

But this is a trap of sorts. As the shooter’s diatribe gets analyzed, pulled apart and republished, it could easily become fodder for the next white nationalist group or the next publicity-seeking mass shooter.

To understand why this is, I reached out to J.M. Berger, the author of a book called Extremism and a research fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence, a research organization that studies extremism online. We’ve made the editorial decision not to link to the hate-filled document, and we use intentionally vague language when referring to some of the most incendiary quotes.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

The New Zealand suspect allegedly left behind a manifesto that detailed his white nationalistic ideology. Is it actually appropriate to call it a “manifesto”?

J.M. Berger

It’s a reasonable word to describe this kind of work. This particular manifesto is tricky because of the way it’s written. Beyond that, we frequently don’t handle news coverage of manifestos very well, so I think there are a lot of issues to unpack around this. But the actual word — I’m not that concerned about it.

Jen Kirby

You said it is tricky — that this document is problematic to cover. What do you mean by that?

J.M. Berger

The author posted it initially on 8chan, which is a site that is devoted to trolling and memes. The document itself contains a lot of that kind of content.

It’s definitely clearly signaling that the author is a white supremacist, and anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. We can take that away and draw some insight from it. But when you get down to the particulars, there are a lot of statements in there mainly to try get news coverage, to get people to say dumb things on TV, or to repeat memes or jokes that white supremacists and white nationalists use online to get people to search for them and try to bring attention to that cause.

So unlike some of the previous extremist manifestos that we’ve seen, like those of [the Charleston church shooter and the man who killed 80 in a mass shooting in Norway in 2011], which are pretty straightforwardly talking about their ideology, this has, I guess you would call it, traps for media coverage.

Jen Kirby

What kinds of traps?

J.M. Berger

I’ll take one of the most glaring examples. He says he’s most influenced by a particular personality who is on the far right of the mainstream political discourse and is certainly a problematic figure, but almost certainly has nothing to do with this attack.

There’s a couple goals in mentioning that person. First, to drive attention to that person. Secondly, to push that person into a combative posture with other people in the media and push out a lot of radicalizing content. There’s stuff like that scattered throughout this. More than most kinds of documents, it’s really intended to pollute the discussion.

But it is clearly a statement of ideology. And that’s what most manifestos are. They’re intended to explain that ideology and to assign meaning to the actions that a terrorist takes. The trick is how do you cover this and make sure that the context of the action is clear without simply redistributing a piece of propaganda.

Jen Kirby

So, if I understand this right, this manifesto is specifically designed to broadcast a message to others in the white supremacist community?

J.M. Berger

It clearly signals that this is a white supremacist attack. It’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration. These are overlapping categories this person is pushing out.

We’re meant to understand that this attack was done for that purpose, and not simply out of mental illness or as a random act of violence. As such, we have to be careful about how we contextualize it. What we don’t want to do is let this guy’s talking points play out in the 24/7 news cycle.

Even the title of the document is meant to send people looking for other ideological texts to support this guy’s views. Somebody just tweeted a Google trends search that showed that the title of the document has surged over the last couple days. It’s a reference to a book, an anti-immigration book that’s been around for a long time. A lot of people are completely unaware of it, and now more people are going to find out about it.

Jen Kirby

What about the video that was posted of the attack — how does that fit into this kind of manifesto? Is that more just for shock value, or does it fit into the larger worldview that the suspect was trying to put forward?

J.M. Berger

The video is a powerful tool to get people to emulate [the violence]. If somebody sees a video like this, when you’re exposed to violence, it increases the possibility that you might be inclined to take up violence yourself. It doesn’t happen to everybody, but for certain people, seeing that kind of example really has a powerful effect.

We saw this with ISIS and their extremely graphic videos. They were very effective, relatively speaking, at mobilizing people to pick up arms and do something violent themselves. For a certain group of people, it can really dramatically increase the chances that they will take action.

Jen Kirby

As you mentioned, much of this document involved trolling and memes. How deeply is this white supremacist ideology rooted in internet culture and memes?

J.M. Berger

What we’ve seen with the rise of social media is that there are a couple qualities to the internet that make it very useful if you’re trying to promote a fringe belief.

One is discovery. It’s much easier to find people who share any kind of belief. If you were interested in the Klan, for instance, you would have to seek out somebody who was in the Klan. You’d have to find them first. You’d have to go and meet them in person.

And these are people who are violent extremists. There’s a chance they might be violent to you. It’s a disincentive for you to go meet with them. But now you can do that online, and talk to somebody without having to put yourself at risk.

Then, finally, all this discovery that you get with the internet allows you to create the appearance of momentum. It makes it appear that these movements are bigger and more consequential than they are — which is not to say that they’re not consequential; they are — but you can generate numbers using the internet you can’t generate offline.

Take the example of ISIS. They used online propaganda and it played an important role in allowing them to gather a couple of hundred thousand people to support their point of view. That couple hundred thousand people is a drop in the bucket compared to the global population or the population of any country, but when you have them all together, they can communicate, they can coordinate their actions, and they can travel to see each other and do things together, and then it becomes a real problem. Then you create a lot of chaos even though what you have is really just a fraction of a percentage of any given population.

Jen Kirby

How do you police that?

J.M. Berger

It’s a tough challenge. With groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, they’re inspiring people to act with minimal guidance. They’re often having conversations with people in private messages. It’s not super visible, so it’s very difficult to try and prevent that kind of attack. Those types also have a real copycat effect, so you see one attack like this and what you’ll see is others will follow that emulate those, just as this attack emulated [the Charleston and Norway attackers].

Jen Kirby

And how do you fight the spread of this kind of extremist ideology, especially when it runs up against issues of free speech?

J.M. Berger

There’s a lot of challenges in how we handle this. The social media companies dealt with the ISIS propaganda problem first, because it was a low-hanging fruit. ISIS had no real support anywhere in the world, no political factions behind it. So companies were able to crack down pretty expeditiously in the scheme of things.

What you see in the current right-wing extremist environment is that a lot of these extremists have people who are much more mainstream political figures who are willing to amplify and defend their perspective. So it’s harder. We are seeing companies turn to this now.

To stay on the manifesto point for a minute — we really have to take care about how we handle things in the mainstream media. I think we, painfully and slowly, learned how to deal with ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda — that we could report on what they were doing without giving them a platform for everything. Without giving them a platform for saying the exact talking points that they want.

We find ways to contextualize it and try and present the truth on the ground without letting them write their own press releases.

Jen Kirby

What should we make of the shooter’s decision to cite [the Charleston and Norway attackers]?

J.M. Berger

We can see that these manifestos have the power to radicalize, and to shape extremist violence. It’s an example in and of itself of how difficult it is for us to deal with these documents.

I wrote about this in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. Both [attackers] have become very iconic figures because they left documents that characterize why they did what they did and contextualized their violence.

If you look at some other cases, for instance, the Sikh temple shooting several years ago, it was carried out by a guy who was known to be involved in white supremacist gangs. But he didn’t leave any kind of document behind him. He’s not the same kind of iconic figure because he doesn’t have that additional layer of meaning to his violence that the people who wrote in detail do.

Jen Kirby

It seems it would be even harder to fight this type of extremism when it intersects with mainstream political discourse. [President] Trump, for instance, called immigrants “invaders” on Friday. The shooter used that language in his manifesto. Are fringe ideologies seeping into the mainstream, or has the mainstream been co-opted by the fringe?

J.M. Berger

It’s pretty much your definition of the vicious cycle. I think the big surge that we’ve seen over the last couple of years in right-wing violence, and the popularity of right-wing extremist content, is definitely, to some extent, a product of the mainstreaming of these ideas. We have a lot of politicians in this country, and in Europe, and in Australia, who are openly advocating at least partial extremist views of the world.

There’s three components to an extremist ideology. You have identity, which is the group that you’re trying to promote. You have crisis — you describe some kind of crisis that requires definitive action. And then there’s a solution, which is violence, or some other kind of hostile action, like segregation.

Where mainstream politicians can really fuel these movements is in the “crisis” part. If you have mainstream politicians out there every day, as some are in this country, saying there’s a profound crisis at the border, there’s a crisis of immigration, extremists can take that crisis narrative and turn that into an extremist narrative by proposing a solution that is violence, that is terrorism, or that is systematic discrimination or oppression.

In the online environment, especially, people can build their own mini extremist ideologies, and they do that by taking different elements they find in different sources online, like Lego pieces. And when politicians are out there drumming up a crisis that doesn’t exist, they’re basically throwing a lot of Legos into their bag, and those are out there for people to pick up and assemble into a worldview.

Jen Kirby

That’s scary. Does that make this particular brand of extremism unique?

J.M. Berger

A lot of what we see in extremism is history repeating itself. But some things change. And one thing that we’re seeing now is really this kind of “roll your own approach” where people can get online and take the pieces [of extremist ideologies] they like and ignore the pieces they don’t like.

So if they think swastikas are over the top, they don’t use swastikas. But if they find some anti-immigration dystopian novel compelling, they’ll use that instead. They assemble a worldview. This is an environment where you get a movement like the alt-right. The alt-right doesn’t have one single coherent ideology; it’s a coalition of different extremists who all share enough material that they can create a rising tide and lift each other’s boats.

Jen Kirby

Does that make it more dangerous? On the one hand, there’s no coherent, clear ideology. Or is it more of a threat because people can pick and choose what they want to believe?

J.M. Berger

Right now, I think it’s more dangerous because we haven’t adapted to it yet. If you go back 10 or 20 years, our media flow had gatekeepers. If you wanted to have a TV station that reached millions of people, you had to spend tremendous amounts of money to do that. And there were regulations that stipulated what you [could] put on the air.

With social media, you can reach an audience that is comparable in size to a major television network without any of those inhibitions. So mainstream values are still functioning as they did before, except the gatekeepers are gone.

There’s a huge playground for these people to wreak a lot of havoc. It’s going to take us probably several years to really get this under control. So I think we’re looking at a pretty extended period of increased extremist activity, probably 10 years at least.

Jen Kirby

So are we late? Has this been percolating for some time and now we’re unprepared for this phenomenon?

J.M. Berger

You’re always behind in dealing with extremism, because extremists can mobilize and change faster than mainstream institutions and mainstream values. Certainly there were signs of this, and I’ve written about it for some years now. And as somebody who wrote a lot about it, I can say that I still am surprised at how dramatically right-wing extremism has expanded in this country and around the world.

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