To the sad young men who loiter in the internet’s reactionary basements, the Christchurch shooter is a hero. Following the murder of 51 people in March, three further terrorists have copied the killer’s modus operandi; releasing manifestos documenting their hatred for Jews, Muslims and immigrants and attempting to live-stream their atrocities online.
The most recent of these came earlier this month, when a man killed two people at at synagogue and kebab shop in Halle, Germany. These outbursts of Christchurch-inspired violence are an offline sign of the shooter’s influence.
In the irony-dense, hate-filled online spaces that radicalised these people, the Christchurch shooter is called a “saint”. He’s spoken about in reverential tones on message boards like 8Chan and Gab (the latter a kind of Twitter for the far-right). And more recently, he’s become a recurring character in a series of alt-right computer games which allow players to re-enact the shooting.
When terrorism becomes a meme
The studio behind the game has a series of new releases, all of which read like a bunch of deranged far-right fever dreams.
In one game, Jesus is resurrected in a future United States ruled by homosexual billionaires and the “Jewish new world order”. The player must enlist the Christchurch shooter and a series of thinly-veiled stand-ins for fascist heroes like Hitler and Mussolini to fight feminists and social justice “warriors”.
In another, the protagonist “Brenton Torrent”, a disgruntled Joker-esque “shitposter” goes on a killing spree labelled “the final livestream”.
The company’s website is likewise filled with anti-Semitic imagery and various far-right easter eggs — for example all games cost $14.88, a reference to the 14 words, a neo-Nazi slogan.
Writer Jeff Sparrow, who has a forthcoming book on Christchurch and the online right tells Crikey the game is “part of a strategy of memeifying terrorism”. He says games like this turn the fascist rage attack into a meme that spreads through the web like wildfire.
In an unconvincing disclaimer, the company insists that its content is “100% satirical” and a parody of modern political culture. But reactionary ideology cloaked in irony is a central feature of the modern far-right.
For years, the alt-right has mobilised irony, humour and memes, both as a shield against critics and as a way of disorienting outsiders trying to piece together what these people actually believe. The memes also give the movement a transgressive allure which makes it attractive to the downwardly mobile young men that are its foot soldiers.
But in the end, the point where the memes end and the violence begins has become blurred to the point of irrelevance. When far-right ideas spread through the internet, Sparrow says, trying to separate irony from ideology isn’t important.
“What matters is that the meme circulates”.
Can we stop them?
After Christchurch, the Australian and New Zealand governments rushed to crackdown on online content. Backed by the country’s chief censor, New Zealand’s biggest telcos have started blocking 8Chan. Within days of the attack, New Zealand banned sharing the shooter’s video of the attack. Weeks later, Australia followed suit.
Since then, Australian internet service providers have been ordered to block eight websites showing the Christchurch shooting video. Two other sites were threatened with fines for showing footage of the Halle attack.
But while governments can put bandaids over violent content, stopping the memes is a lot harder. New Zealand’s chief censor admitted that banning these kinds of games would be difficult, and may do little to stop their spread.
Earlier this year, PayPal blocked the game company from using its services. But you can still buy their games with a regular MasterCard or Visa. And while web development platform Wix stopped hosting the company’s site, it is now back up and running backed by Cloudflare, the web-hosting service with a history of neutrality to the content it hosted.
Meanwhile, the Australian government’s new laws were targeted specifically at violent videos, meaning they wouldn’t be useful in taking down the game. And while Australia has some of the toughest restrictions on gaming in the world, the laws don’t stop people downloading content like this online.
Retroactively taking down violent videos won’t stop the far-right. Even when 8Chan went down after the El Paso shooting, its users fled to other murkier corners of the internet.
Still, as Sparrow points out, for all the momentum fascist movements seem to gather online, many have stalled when exposed to the sunlight.
“The internet has been a tremendous boon for Nazis, but they’re still not capable of building genuine organisations on the ground,” he said. “Particularly after Charlottesville, they fell apart because people demonstrated against them.”
Winning that ideological battle online is harder, and requires us to better understand how fascism spreads across the internet.
To do that, we might have to start taking the memes more seriously.