Tim Squirrell, a PhD candidate studying alt-right online communities, said: “The entirety of his manifesto was published to gain as much attention as possible. It is littered with in-jokes and memes targeting a specific audience. It’s low-quality bait and you can’t take any of it at face value.”
The use of these more obscure forums points to a wider trend troubling Western lawmakers and security chiefs: that, even as the big US tech groups do more to weed out terror content online, more extremists are shifting to smaller sites that are harder to monitor.
Though these chaotic and largely unregulated communities have spawned many mainstays of internet humour, they have also hosted “hacktivist” groups such as Anonymous, the cult-like conspiracy theorists of Qanon and the political extremism known as the alt-right.
The suspected Christchurch shooter was “basically performing” for 8chan, Mr Squirrell said, describing the site as “an incubator for the worst of the worst”.
8chan was founded in 2013 as an unfettered and unfiltered alternative to the long-running message board 4chan. When 4chan’s typically light-touch moderators banned discussion of the controversy known as Gamergate in 2015, a group of its more libertarian users decamped to 8chan.
In its short existence, 8chan’s decentralised grouping of message boards has been periodically kicked offline or banned from Google search results for hosting child pornography, targeted bullying and perpetuating conspiracy theorists. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump tweeted a meme featuring Hillary Clinton, positioning his opponent in a context that many saw as anti-Semitic, which had originally been posted on 8chan.
As fast as they could
If 8chan is intended to be a “haven” for the internet’s “terrible things”, as its creator has reportedly called it, that stands in contrast to the scrambles behind the scenes at Twitter, YouTube and Facebook on Friday. The internet companies each said they had removed accounts associated with the alleged shooter and were reviewing and removing copies of his video as fast as they could.
YouTube said it had used “smart detection technology” to delete thousands of such videos. Facebook said it was also “removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware”.
But for some in the security services, that is still not fast enough. “We continue to work with social media providers to take down terrorist content,” said the UK’s head of counter-terror policing, assistant commissioner Neil Basu, in a statement on Friday. “But it is apparent that companies need to act more quickly to remove this content from their platforms.”
Unlike Islamist terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, which have exploited the internet to spread their message and co-ordinate attacks across borders, right-wing extremists have traditionally been seen as splintered and disorganised.
Yet Jonathan Stevenson, from the think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the landscape could be changing.
“Such groups appear to be using the internet and in particular social media liberally and inventively, as the jihadis have, to encourage attacks across a fairly wide geographical range, making their threat at least nascently transnational,” he said.
Mr Squirrell described pop cultural references in both the Facebook video and the manifesto as “shitposts” — a term popularised online to describe low-quality content designed to provoke a response with minimal effort.
“References to cultural touchstones in the manifesto are meant to gain the attention of the media in the hope they’ll be taken at face value. At the same time, those references are in-jokes, aimed at an 8chan audience who will understand and appreciate them.”
Reporters covering tragedies such as Friday’s events in New Zealand have become familiar with the online confusion and misinformation that often surrounds terrorist attacks. Yet most are still unfamiliar with the impenetrable culture that 8chan trades in — and then relies on Facebook and YouTube to distribute.
“For a long time, these platforms have taken advantage of the fact that most journalists are not particularly wise to internet culture, making up outrageous lies with the knowledge they’ll be reported in good faith,” Mr Squirrell said. “The ‘joke’ is the media will take what he’s saying seriously.”