Myopia about far-right terror, YouTube radicalization led to massacre

Much of the report’s focus is directed at government policy and its ability to prevent future attacks of this nature, with a particular emphasis on the failure of law enforcement to identify Tarrant as a potential threat despite his having raised several red flags during his time in the country.

It notes, for example, that Tarrant had received medical treatment for accidentally wounding himself while cleaning one of his guns—bullet fragments were lodged in his leg and his eye—while preparing for the massacre, but that police received no report of this because there is no law requiring it:

[Tarrant] told us that at the time of the accident he was concerned the shot might have been heard and reported to New Zealand Police. He said he ran through in his mind a scenario of what he would say if New Zealand Police officers arrived to question him. As it turned out the accident was not reported to New Zealand Police. He told us that he also weighed up whether he should seek medical treatment, but his concerns about his eyesight outweighed his reluctance to bring himself to official notice. So, he went to the Emergency Department but with a prepared explanation.

The report found that New Zealand suffered from the same kind of myopia about potential sources of domestic terrorism that have long existed in the United States elsewhere—that is, an often exaggerated sense of threat coming from Islamist radicals, to the exclusion of nearly every other kind of threat, and particularly that coming from far-right white supremacists. The nation’s Strategic Intelligence Analysis team produced three quarterly reports beginning in 2017 assessing potential terrorist threats, and all three were “relatively short and focus almost exclusively on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in New Zealand and overseas.”

A Dec. 18, 2018, report did note that “non-Islamist terrorist threats from extreme political, religious and issues-motivated groups are plausible in New Zealand,” and that these groups “have extreme elements that could plausibly turn violent,” but it then concluded that “terrorist acts by them are currently not expected.”

Ten days before the attack, the team reported that it was “not aware of any credible threats from such groups.” The commission concluded: “These assessments reflect the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s developing but still limited understanding of the threat of right-wing extremism in New Zealand as at 15 March 2019.”

The larger issues raised by the commission, however, have more to do with the ongoing willingness of large internet and social media platforms not only to permit the constant spread of conspiracy disinformation globally, but to benefit financially from algorithms that functionally guarantee the radicalization of people drawn into these extremist realms. These social media companies are profiting from this radicalization. And the worst, in Tarrant’s world, was YouTube.

The report tried to explore as much of Tarrant’s digital breadcrumb trail as was possible, and investigators also interviewed him at length about his online habits. He used Facebook somewhat sparingly, it found, though he did livestream the massacres that morning using that as his platform of choice. And Tarrant confirmed that he was an irregular contributor to the often vile white nationalist chats at the message boards 4chan and 8chan—the latter of which he used to publish a manifesto the morning of the massacre.

Tarrant also financially supported white supremacist sites such as Daily Stormer and Right Stuff, as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Michael Edison Hayden notes, and gave money to the Canadian far-right site The Rebel. Among other recipients of his largesse was YouTuber Stefan Molyneux.

Moreover, as researcher Becca Lewis notes, YouTube was the primary source of his radicalization. The report explains that Tarrant “claimed that he was not a frequent commenter on extreme right-wing sites and that YouTube was, for him, a far more significant source of information and inspiration.” It added that “the evidence we have seen is indicative of more substantial use of YouTube and is therefore consistent with what he told us.”

The style in which his manifesto was written indicates fluency in the language customarily used on extreme right-wing websites and associated memes and in-jokes. The individual confirmed to us that he visited 4chan and 8chan and it is likely that he contributed comments (although we have no direct evidence of this). He also visited other sites and discussion boards where there was discussion promoting extreme right-wing and ethno-nationalist views similar to his own and sometimes supporting violence. He also spent much time accessing broadly similar material on YouTube.

The report cites some of his Facebook posts and other comments that suggested what he had in mind, though he generally disguised his intent with softer language. However, his absorption of such white nationalist ideological propaganda as so-called “replacement theory”—which claims that white people are being intentionally displaced in white societies by nonwhite immigrants as part of a larger plot to dismantle Western civilization—was a constant presence in his social media posts, such as this one:

Across the road from my gym is an Islamic boarding school. It’s name is [deleted] … To date I have just been using it as a source of rage for my lifts. Today I found out that this Islamic boarding school that sits in my area was once [a Catholic] school. This is what happens as a society when you fail to have children then import the children of others to replace them.

New Zealand is already leading a global initiative to reel in internet and social media companies and require them to reform their algorithms and to take the problems of disinformation and online radicalization seriously. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration refused steadfastly to participate, claiming that white nationalism does not pose a serious domestic terrorism threat to the United States.

Now that we know this to be utterly false—and that Trump himself has opened the door to a flood of white supremacist violence that has not faded, and may even worsen in the future—it will be incumbent on the incoming administration to reverse this course and join in what has indeed become a global battle.

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