Fifty-one people were killed. Forty-nine people were injured. The weapons used included two semi-automatic rifles, two shotguns, and one lever-action rifle. There was one assassin and one manifesto.
There was also one live-stream of the attack. But millions of copies were made and distributed within hours.
The Christchurch mosque shooting that took place on 15 March 2019 was the deadliest in New Zealand’s history. And its impact was felt across the world.
In the aftermath of any terror attack questions abound about the motives behind the attack, what could have been done to prevent it, and if there was any indication that the attacker would strike.
Global media and police grapple for answers. Who was the shooter? How old was he/she? What was his or her economic background? Were there any indications of radical views in the past?
Many recent ‘lone wolf’ attackers have left behind so-called manifestos, charting out their worldviews and reasons for launching attacks. They have also begun to live-stream their attacks on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.
Terrorist manifestos often make for disturbing reading, but give researchers a unique insight into the minds of extremists. They also spread across the world at rapid speed, potentially influencing copy-cat attacks in different countries or regions.
While manifestos have been written and distributed for years, the internet provides a new and decentralised way of distributing them. Live-streaming of terror attacks, however, is an entirely new phenomenon.
Our global village
The highly connected world we live in can often make us feel that we are part of a global village. The internet and social media make it possible for us to experience the lives of others across the world as if they lived in the same city.
These same networks that allow us to connect with distant family members or work with colleagues in other time zones also facilitate radicalisation across the world.
We no longer live in nation-state silos. One terror attack in New Zealand can influence another halfway across the world, because of our interconnectedness.
Our connected world is far from something to bemoan, but it facilitates communication and networking among diverse radicals from diverse countries.
We’ve all heard about how young Europeans have been radicalised from afar by ISIS fighters in the Middle East, and subsequently travelled to the region to join the fight. And networks like 8chan, which are frequented by the so-called alt-right, facilitate the sharing of radical content internationally.
Aside from leaving behind a manifesto, the Christchurch shooter live-streamed his attack on Facebook. Almost 200 people tuned in to watch the live broadcast. None of those people reported what was happening.
Facebook claimed to remove the video of the shooting “within minutes”, but even that was too late. Copies had already been made by viewers and it was shared exponentially.
Just seven months later, a neo-Nazi entered a Synagogue in the German town of Halle. He shot and killed two people attending a service there.
Like the Christchurch attack, this was a shooting with racist motives. And like the Christchurch attack, it was also live-streamed. This time on Twitch.
According to reports, almost no-one watched the live stream. But again it was not reported those who had seen it after the attack. In total 2,200 people watched the video before it was reported and removed.
Unlike Facebook, Twitch created a unique cryptographic fingerprint for the video, which was shared with all the main tech players. This was designed to help them all automatically detect the video and take it down from their own platforms.
In both cases, the killers shot the footage in a manner that would be familiar to any gamer. It looked as if they were playing a first-person-shooter game where the gun hovers in the frame with the camera mounted on the rifle.
Florence Keen, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, speaking to Technology Review stated that “the use of the ‘first-person shooting live-stream’ tactic is increasingly becoming a marker of these kind of attacks”.
It’s almost impossible for this radical content to be removed entirely from the internet. Un-moderated sites in shady parts of the internet, such as 8chan offer a safe haven for this content, as do sections of the dark web.
Building manifestos to build movements?
Increasing numbers of attackers on the right have published manifestos charting out their worldviews and the rationale behind their attacks.
Very rarely are terror attacks random affairs. They are usually underpinned by specific ideas and ideologies that form a clear rationale to the killer, even if that rationale is xenophobic, violent or maladjusted.
In one of Europe’s most recent terror attacks, which took place in Hanau in Germany, the killer left behind a pre-recorded video and a manifesto. Both his video and manifesto painted a picture of a confused and warped world where aliens and mind control both exist, and where secret US bases are used to sacrifice children to Satan.
Like the live-streamed videos of other terrorists, both pieces of content made it onto social media and were circulated. The killer, a 43 year-old German man who also killed his own mother before turning the gun on himself, clearly had mental health issues that had not been dealt with. As such, his manifesto found limited appeal among others in the radical right community.
But the same cannot be said of people like 28 year-old Brenton Tarrant, who carried out the Christchurch shootings.
Unlike many other terror attackers, he did not turn the gun on himself, but he did leave behind an extensive 74-page manifesto titled ‘The Great Replacement’. Tarrant had scheduled the manifesto to be sent to contacts in the media and political world as he launched his attack. He desperately wanted the manifesto to get out.
And it did.
Like the live-streamed videos, copies were made and distributed. The manifesto popped up on 8chan and Twitter and multiplied further, reaching audiences around the world.
The Christchurch shooter wrote about how he was influenced by Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Breivik had written his own manifesto in 2011, and cited that his main motive for the attacks was to get his manifesto out to the public.
Extremists are influenced by the manifestos of others, and write up their own manifestos that influence even more people. The connectedness of our world makes it easier than ever to share and disseminate these manifestos to diverse audiences.
In the aftermath of the attacks, translations of manifestos rapidly appeared and were distributed around the world, reaching ever greater audiences.
Copies of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto were even translated into Ukrainian and Russian, and were being sold for 100 Hryvnia (approx. EUR 4), pointing to the highly transnational nature of right-wing terrorism in particular. Bellingcat’s investigation uncovered photos of rebel fighters making Nazi salutes and posing with the manifesto.
Literally just as we were publishing this piece today on Russian and Ukrainian translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, news came out that he had sent a letter from prison to a fan — who promptly published it on 4chan.https://t.co/4AyNr9AXUf
— Bellingcat (@bellingcat) August 14, 2019
Very few manifestos build movements. But if they inspire just one other person to launch a copy-cat attack, then they have already proven effective.
What is the psychological motivation for live-streaming terror attacks and leaving manifestos? In a global society like ours where social pressures encourage us to document and narrate our lives on social media, it’s hardly surprising that attacks should be live-streamed via those same channels.
But when it comes to manifestos, the motivation might be a bit different.
In the case of the Christchurch shooting and the case of Behring Breivik in Norway, the goal was to clearly get the message out and to influence others. Both terrorists seemed motivated to expose their own ‘truths’ about the world, and the forces at play within it, in order to radically alter politics and change the perceptions of others.
It should be clear that manifestos are more than suicide notes — even if they may also serve that function. In the case of the Hanau shooter, his rambling and racist manifesto mentioned the “bad behavior of certain ethnic groups”, and listed countries where he felt the population should be exterminated. His manifesto also drew on the eugenicist views of Hitler that Germans are “purebreds and valuable”. Aside from the mind control and aliens, there is a clear political thrust to these statements.
In the case of the Christchurch shooter this was a manifesto that was always intended to be distributed far and wide, to convince others to adopt a specific worldview. The author likely wanted it to be translated into other languages. And he wanted it to build a movement and to influence others.
Terrorist manifestos are at once legacy-building documents for those who commit attacks, and calls to action that invite others to subscribe to their world view and build movements.
It is incredibly difficult to intercept or prevent such content being shared. Indeed, the infrastructure for detecting radical live-streams is not good enough. But even if it was good enough on specific platforms, attackers would just switch to others.
The best protection against radical content in our European societies is not just removing content as soon as possible, but building the capacities of our citizens to recognise radical material for what it is and to reject it.
A healthy society is a resilient society.
Working to make sure citizens live inclusive and fulfilling lives, and can access the right tools to support them economically and socially, will always be more effective than purely reactive measures.