clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Christchurch shooter used memes to spread hate

Learning from years of online right-wing extremism, the shooter made his manifesto a weaponized shitpost.

New Zealand Remembers Victims Of Christchurch Mosque Terror Attacks Photo by Cam McLaren/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The man who allegedly shot and killed 49 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, framed the attack as a real-life escalation of meme-based internet culture.

Police are currently investigating a sprawling 74-page manifesto that the 28-year-old suspect allegedly wrote and posted on social media shortly before the attack. The document rails against Muslims and immigrants and includes several references to memes and video games.

The shooter posted the manifesto, along with a link to the forthcoming live stream of the promised attack, on 8chan, one of the main online homes of meme-loving right-wing extremists. In the post, he wrote that it was “time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort” — meaning, essentially, that it was time to stop fooling around on the internet and turn his extremist views into real-world action.

Then, right before the starting the attack — which he live-streamed to Facebook as if it were a first-person shooter video game — the shooter referenced the “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme. The guns used in the attack were also decorated with memes, mostly insider white nationalist references.

The shooter appears to have been very familiar with extremist corners of the internet. The choices he made — to post a manifesto to a known radical community, and to carry out the attack as if he were doing it “for the lulz” — are unlikely to have been made at random.

Instead, they were most likely designed to entertain his fellow extremists and, above all, to help them see him as someone to admire and even copy. The memetic elements of the manifesto were also most likely designed to provoke the media and the public into sharing it and debating the shooter’s actions — thereby increasing the attention, virality, and public debate surrounding the attack, and further spreading the manifesto within the mainstream.

All of this is important to understand, not only to keep public attention focused on the shooter’s unthinkable actions instead of memes but because using memes to normalize unconscionable beliefs and behavior has become an established messaging tool for the far right.

Memes within the manifesto serve to draw attention and pique readers’ curiosity

The shooter’s manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement,” repeats false propaganda about immigrants as “invaders” and references a number of radicalizing ideological influences. It also follows a standard method for spreading extremist ideology online, by framing its hateful rhetoric as a joke in an attempt to normalize it and make it appear more acceptable.

It mixes references to memes, shitposts — an internet term for pointless posts intended to derail or distract readers, the baffling nature of which can often approach Dadaist nonsense art — and other bits of benign internet culture with serious ideological dogma. For instance, it randomly includes a well-known piece of copypasta (large blocks of text that get passed around in meme form), for what appears to be satire’s sake.

Journalist Robert Evans wrote a blog post shortly after the shooting in which he convincingly argues that the entire manifesto is an example of what it’s imitating — that is, it’s a giant shitpost meant to simultaneously draw attention to and distract from the white nationalist rationale that motivated the shooter.

“The entire manifesto is dotted, liberally, with references to memes and Internet in-jokes that only the extremely online would get,” Evans notes. “They are meant to distract attention from his more honest points, and to draw the attention of his real intended audience.” In other words, the shooter wanted to keep the general public guessing about which parts of the manifesto are serious, while he catered to and essentially directly addressed his core audience of fellow white supremacists.

How does this work? There are three main parts to this process, and they each function toward obscuring reality with the intention of spreading the extremist rhetoric contained within.

  1. Using memes to trick people into dismissing a message as “just a joke” and not serious.
  2. Relying on members of the public to spend time dissecting, responding to, and being distracted by the memetic format of the message.
  3. Concealing the “actual” message within the “joke” of the meme, so that it spreads in all seriousness while the meme gets amplified and discussed.

One of the most significant and pernicious ways that right-wing extremists use trolling, shitposting, and memes is to distort what their actual message is, so they can claim plausible deniability that their message is harmful or bad. That way, even when their extremism is clearly shown to be sincere, the irony surrounding the message clouds the truth. The shooter’s manifesto is a textbook example of this.

And to break down why, we have to briefly pay as much attention to the memes, and the artifice around them, as we do to the abhorrent racism they’re meant to spread.

The manifesto’s meme use is strategically designed to obfuscate its racism

Consider that copypasta I mentioned above. It appears in the middle of a lengthy “FAQ” section in the manifesto:

This is “the Navy Seal” meme, a well-known shitpost in which an internet forum user rants in exaggerated, overblown fashion. It’s been around online for years, but it still frequently gets taken seriously when it’s used.

Many memes don’t always register as memes, especially as they spread further from their point of origin — so the way people respond to them becomes a barometer for how internet-savvy and knowledgeable they are about internet culture.

As a bonus, if you recognize a meme when someone else doesn’t, you get to feel superior to that other person. So the inclusion of the Navy Seal meme in the manifesto simultaneously becomes about wink-wink-nodding to anyone who gets it, while jarring and discombobulating people who don’t.

In the context of the larger manifesto, it’s a giant distraction, because anyone who doesn’t recognize it has to waste time sorting out what’s true and what’s false — some early media reports were duped into reporting that the shooter had military experience. Plus, the overall amount of time spent identifying and explaining the memes detracts from the time we could be using to trace the shooter’s extremist views back to their roots, as well as to their counterparts in global politics.

Meanwhile, the average person reading the document might be drawn to the copypasta, the giant wall of shouty text, and become distracted by the question of whether that text is sincere or legitimate — distracted from the fact that it comes in an “FAQ” section immediately after the shooter has written, “You are a bigot,racist,xenophobe,islamophobe,nazi,fascist” [sic] about himself.

The manifesto does express the views of a bigoted, racist Islamophobe who states his abhorrent white nationalist views throughout the document in great detail. A primary goal of including the meme seems to be to make the public focus less on that fact, and more on the novelty of the memes, thereby ensuring that the manifesto draws attention.

But the ultimate goal of including the memes seems to be a show of solidarity with the manifesto’s primary audience: the “insiders” who understand that while the copypasta is a joke, nothing about the extremist ideology is. The memes inserted into the manifesto serve to bolster fellow extremists’ enthusiasm, making them feel even more unified as people who “get” the references and subscribe to the racist views. Ultimately, the memes help turn the manifesto itself into a radicalizing force.

The manifesto is a textbook example of the way right-wing extremists manipulate the media and internet culture

The manifesto also, in classic shitpost form, anticipates the mass media and public’s reaction: that is, the entire document is intended to be a signal to the true audience, to the people who “get it,” while confusing and distracting those who don’t.

It is intended to predict and spoof how the writer expects progressives and members of the media will react — with shock, outrage, and confusion over the various distractions placed in their path, which in this case are the memes themselves.

And, as the existence of this very explainer proves, it is correct in its prediction. Journalists — who are ethically obligated to not spread misinformation — must dispel the parts of the manifesto that are meant to confuse the public, like the Navy Seal meme. But that also serves to distract from its real message of hate.

It may not be intuitive to discuss how trying to demystify memetic messages instead works to amplify them, but that’s precisely what couching the manifesto in memes allows it to do. That is also why the alt-right has strategically and openly been using memes to spread its ideology for years.

In December 2018, I spoke to Whitney Phillips, a well-known expert in online trolling and media literacy, about the rise of online extremism on YouTube. We discussed several issues that Phillips had written about recently, in a guide to help journalists avoid spreading toxic ideologies while reporting on them.

Phillips explained to me how journalists and other members of the public frequently fall into the same kind of trap that the New Zealand shooter’s alleged manifesto set.

“A lot of journalists have a kind of perspective that the only way to deal with the pervasive real problems on the internet is if we call attention to them, so that we can begin to kind of uncouple negative influence or hate speech,” she said. “Light disinfects — that’s the adage.”

She went on to explain that a lot of times, that approach is exactly right: “For a certain subset of the audience, light does disinfect. That’s absolutely the appropriate tack you should take: that you explain what’s happening, and that once those audience members have that information, then they can go forward and be better-informed citizens. Right? Participating in a democracy.”

However, she also warned of the dangers of writing extensively about topics that are used to spread extremist ideology: “But that doesn’t account for all the other audience members for whom light doesn’t just not disinfect, it only serves to illuminate. And in the case of conspiracy theorizing, even if you are fact-checking or trying to debunk, in order to, you know, shed light on a particular problem, or to just make it clear that this one thing that people thought happened didn’t actually happen — by doing that, in this weird, upside-down kind of way, you run the risk of confirming and further entrenching exactly that conspiratorial thinking. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing that ‘they’ would want you to think. Right?”

As Phillips indicates, all of this gets really hairy, really fast, because journalists often need to stop and talk about what does and doesn’t matter, in order to keep from perpetuating even more harm. But in an age where ironic memetic rhetoric frequently distorts reality in ways that then become reality, that’s extremely hard to do.

Which brings us to the New Zealand shooter’s call to “subscribe to PewDiePie” right before the attack.

The call to “subscribe to PewDiePie” was the shooter’s most revealing meme of all

At the most basic level, the words “subscribe to PewDiePie” are a meme. The phrase first spread as a harmless and sincere push by fans of PewDiePie, a.k.a. YouTube creator Felix Kjellberg, to get him more subscribers on the platform, specifically in response to the over-corporatization of the site. Many of those fans were so enthusiastic, however, that the campaign has since spread far beyond YouTube and his fans.

In some corners of the internet, the phrase “subscribe to PewDiePie” is used so frequently that it has essentially become meaningless, a one-line shitpost that represents a general kind of reactionary stance. Or, as the New York Times put it, “a kind of all-purpose cultural bat signal for the young and internet-absorbed.” Saying “subscribe to PewDiePie” has become a way of proving that you’re internet-savvy, that you’re not a passive consumer of a sanitized and corporatized internet. It’s a shorthand, in essence, for “us versus them.”

There is currently no indication that the New Zealand shooter actually is a PewDiePie fan. And as legions of PewDiePie fans have been quick to point out in the wake of the shooting, the meme at this point has nothing to do with PewDiePie himself.

For his part, Kjellberg was quick to repudiate the attack, stating, “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person.” But for a certain audience, the statement is meant to make the shooting — which, again, was live-streamed on Facebook, with the link posted to 8chan in advance — feel normalized, as if it were just an average video game demo by the average meme-happy gamer.

And even though “subscribe to PewDiePie” is just a meme, it’s not just a meme, because Kjellberg has a history of amplifying white nationalist rhetoric that is both serious and violent, and the shooter has now both drawn attention to him and used him as a messenger. “By forcing Kjellberg to acknowledge the attack,” Taylor Lorenz wrote at the Atlantic, “the shooter succeeded in further spreading the word about the crime to Kjellberg’s tens of millions of followers.”

By drawing on meme culture, and naming a polarizing central figure within meme culture, the alleged shooter ensured that debate would arise around those details, rather than uniting people in standing against hateful rhetoric and violent acts.

This cycle is already beginning to take effect, with many lining up to dismiss the role that memes have played in advancing far-right ideology, even though the New Zealand shooter literally described his horrific actions as an escalation of online shitposting.

The whole point of these types of memes is that they are not meant to be taken seriously, right up until the moment where they become very serious. Take it from the anonymous owner of an established anti-Semitic YouTube channel, who described his own strategy of spreading his hateful rhetoric as follows: “Pretend to joke about it until the punchline /really/ lands.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.