One Year On, A Search For Meaning From The Christchurch Massacre

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If you search the phrase ‘Multiculturalism is’ on Google, the result you get back is something worth celebrating… if you’re a white supremacist who likes to slaughter Muslims. One year on from New Zealand’s worst modern-day massacre, Kawsar Ali delves into the dark world of the Internet, and its response to an unspeakable crime.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch Massacre, where Brenton Tarrant, an Australian gunman, entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and slaughtered Muslims in the name of white supremacy.

A national remembrance service was to be held in Christchurch’s Hagley Park today, a partnership between the New Zealander government and the Muslim community. It was cancelled in the face of the threat the coronavirus poses to the Christchurch community.

Personally, I will spend the day reflecting on the slaughter from my home on Dharug Country, in Sydney’s west.

In the weeks approaching the anniversary of the shooting, I began reflecting on how deeply violent the massacre was, and how a livestream was used to extend its reach. I also thought about how connected it was to both Australia, through the nationality of Brenton Tarrant, and Aotearoa, New Zealand, and their settler colonial pasts and present.

With a GoPro strapped to his chest, Tarrant broadcast an attack on Muslims inside and outside the mosque. The message to Muslims globally was clear: you are not only unwelcome, you are also not safe.

The date will remain an eternally eerie one to me. As an Australian Muslim, the geographic proximity to New Zealand and the nationality of the gunman made me deeply unsafe. I remember watching the death toll climb in the media coverage. 40 deaths now confirmed. 50 deaths now confirmed. Finally, 51 deaths, 49 people injured.

After the shooting I felt painfully aware of all that made me ‘different’ in Australia. My hijab, my Islamic name that is derived from the Quran, my ethnic accent, my background derived from my Arab parents, the religion I inherited and practice.

I felt dehumanised online, watching the deaths become a celebration, a mockery, a meme. I felt unsafe offline too, spending more time indoors after the shooting.

This soon became an anger I wore on my sleeve – I will continue to occupy space in public. A white supremacist will not tell me I cannot.

Still, no matter how I felt, I could not stop researching and reading about it. I ended up changing my research area at university to address the shooting at a Master of Research level, from ethnic crime to the links between race, power and the Internet.

I decided to ask questions such as, ‘How can the Internet be used to extend settler colonialism?’ And ‘What does the Christchurch shooting say about Australia and Aotearoa?’

My research has directed me to interrogate deeply difficult online and offline spaces, communities and realities, and I have collected a wealth of archived data over the past year.

What I found

My research reveals that that academic studies of the alt-right, online communities and white supremacy have largely focused on a growing online presence across social media and websites such as Twitter, Reddit and 4chan and 8chan.

The ability of online users to surpass national boundaries and spread global white supremacy through the Internet has also been studied. The alt-right have found a home on the Internet, using its features to cunningly recruit members, form a growing community and mainstream politically extreme views.

While there is little literature that discusses the Christchurch shooting and settler colonialism, there is a wealth of reporting about the Internet, white supremacy and racial violence. This area of growing knowledge shows that those studying the links between race, power and the Internet have been able to produce strong literature regarding the alt-right, online communities and white supremacy despite the online anonymity of majority of its members.

Prior to embarking on the Christchurch shooting Tarrant digitally released a manifesto on imageboard site 8chan, stating among his final post, “I have provided links to my writings below, please do your part by spreading my message.”

As a result of my ongoing research, I spend a lot of time reading the manifesto of the shooter, a document banned in Aotearoa, New Zealand. As well, I study online threads and speak to alt-right members online quite often.

Every piece of online data is different, all of them disturbing at some level, and of course, open to various interpretations. I find different types of information every day to interrogate this research. For example, much can be said about Australia, the Internet and settler colonialism given the fact that online users of 4chan continually nominated Brenton Tarrant as “Australian of the Year” and “Local Hero” in the annual award ceremony.

Citing reference to his manifesto and supplying the Christchurch High Court as a contact (the body in charge of the Royal Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque Shootings), the users encouraged nominations across threads on the site.

Another day, another set of distressing data. I found a swarm of ‘copypasta’ – a block of text which is proliferated across the Internet, akin to spam, and often false or taken out of context to become a type of meme – such as the one below.

This copypasta includes a fabricated story that Brenton Tarrant had, in fact, died at the hands of a Māori Muslim convert in prison: “38-year-old man from the southern village of Kokoru, who is a Maori convert to Islam, claimed his attack was revenge for the Christchurch shooting which left 50 innocent worshippers dead.”

‘Kokoru’ is a fictional location in New Zealand. It’s a Maori word that means ‘bay’, but it’s clearly been conjured in this case to provide a believable Indigenous aesthetic. This copypasta makes a stark point in how both Māori and Muslim bodies become criminalised, even in mystical memes, continually seen as dangerous to white supremacists.

My research also found that online posters have become obsessed with Tarrant. Of course, you don’t have to be invested in the research I’ve been conducting to believe this but the screenshots below highlight the dedication of his fans.

I also witnessed the lengths to which Tarrant fans are willing to go to write and hear from Tarrant himself in prison, where he’s being held in isolation in maximum security.

Don’t think for a second though that Muslims are allowed to mourn March 15 2019. Below are screenshots of anonymous users joking about playing music from Brenton Tarrant’s livestream, and orchestrating a fake threat on the national remembrance service that was to be held.

Memes and ‘lulz’ apparently know no boundaries.

Race online

While we may not all use them, we know  that these online communities are hostile. So let’s look at something that people use all the time – search engines such as Google.

Moving away from threads, one day I sat in the postgraduate research space at my university and opened the world’s largest search engine. I wanted to see what happened when I typed in terms that used race related terms, like “multiculturalism”, “xenophobia” and “minorities.”

I wondered, would this search engine pose as hostile architecture after the Christchurch shooting? What I found left me at a loss for words.

When I googled “multiculturalism is” Google suggested the following results.  

Suggested results like “multiculturalism is cancer” and “multiculturalism is a disaster” mimicked lines you would find at a white supremacist rally, in alt right literature or memed into fame on 4chan or 8chan. They reminded me of a passage in Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto:

“Your ancestors did not sweat, bleed and die in the name of a multicultural, egalitarian nation. They built homes for their children to live in, they built communities for their people to thrive in, they built nations for their people to survive in.”

I found it particularly amusing that Brenton Tarrant, an Australian, a citizen of a settler colony, would assert the right to dictate who does and does not belong in a country in which he is a visitor. Tarrant assumes the right to manage a nation, and encourages this to inspire other nations. He believes that on the basis of race, specific ethnic minorities become an object to be literally eliminated. Then again, this is rooted in the history of Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand, a reality all too real to Indigenous and Māori communities.

Notably, googling contentious words such as “Islamophobia” and “white supremacy” offered no results. While I do not use the word xenophobia much in my own research, being primarily concerned with other terms, I have seen it across white supremacy threads I have studied and archived, so I thought what would happen if I google “xenophobia is”?

I recall the series of short questions Tarrant asks himself in his manifesto and his distance from associating himself with xenophobia.

“Were/are you a “xenophobe”?
No, no culture scares me. I am only wary of those cultures with higher fertility rates replacing others.”

Tarrant presumes no fear, rather a repeated concern with the replacement of the people of his nation. However, Google search engines suggest that xenophobia, a fear or hatred of people from foreign countries, is good and is natural, these ideas rooted in ideas of who does and does not belong, and who is foreign.

I also searched the phrase “minorities are”.

But hold on. On 11 February 2020, Safer Internet Day, I decided to reconduct this search result and see what would happen. The results got worse, including new search results such as “minorities are criminals” and “minorities are overrepresented on tv” which were not present months before.

Recommendations such as “minorities are the worst offenders”, “minorities are overrepresented” and “minorities are becoming the majority” echo ideas we saw permeated throughout Tarrant’s manifesto.

These ideas are based on white supremacist ideas that equip racial violence against specific ethnic minorities. It is ideas that minorities are “replacing” white majorities that justifies white on brown and white on black hate crimes. It encourages an insidious assimilation, where minorities begin retreating inward. I was reminded of the following passage from Tarrant’s manifesto:

Minorities are never treated well, do not become one.
Do not allow your enemies to grow unchecked.”

Brenton Tarrant is certainly right in one sense – minorities have it difficult.

Replicating ideas of replacement theory that permeated the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, this series of Google searches highlight the serial violence in what the Internet allows, mimicking a form of racial violence embodied in the offline acts of the shooter.

The search results made me think: What happens when the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is banned, but the Internet replicates some of the ideas within the document? When we think of ‘Safer Internet Day’, we must ask, who is the Internet safe for?

Ruha Benjamin writes in her book “Race After the Internet” that digital technologies often “hide, speed up and even deepen discrimination, while appearing to be neutral or benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era.” Here, the racial neutrality of the Internet, often understood as simply users being racist, not the systems that they use, highlights how tools like a search engine can cause, equip and promote racial violence.

Discussing Google, Benjamin writes the following:

“When it comes to search engines such as Google, it turns out that online tools, like racist robots, reproduce the biases that persist in the social world. They are, after all, programmed using algorithms that are constantly updated on the basis of human behaviour and are learning and replicating the technology of race, expressed in the many different associations that the users make.”

The co-option of the Internet allows for celebrations of white supremacy and racial violence that are made increasingly accessible through simply visiting a website. Now, however, we see these ideas showcased before we even visit racially loaded websites – we can see them as search recommendations.

While accounts of the shooting have been receptive of the racially charged nature of sites such as 4chan and 8chan, illustrative of the active role that ‘shitposting’ and anonymous chatrooms play, more attention must be paid to the ways that search engines reiterate white supremacy and how they are used to assert the power of white settlers.

We must consider how this is embodied through the larger ecosystem of the Internet, one that extends white supremacy. The term I have coined to describe it is digital settler colonialism, and I’ll seek to continue to investigate it in my postgraduate studies and research.

In her landmark book “Algorithms of Oppression” Safiya Noble highlights how Dylann Roof, an American white supremacist who shot dead nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, used Google searches such as “black on white crime” to lead an online radicalisation that justified his violence:

A straight line cannot be drawn between search results and murder. But we cannot ignore the ways that a murderer such as Dylann Roof, allegedly in his own words, reported that his racial awareness was cultivated online by searching on a concept or phrase that led him to very narrow, hostile, and racist views. He was not led to counterpositions, to antiracist websites… What we need is a way to reframe, reimagine, relearn, and remember the struggle for racial and social justice and to see how information online in ranking systems can also impact behavior and thinking offline.

Race offline

Users on the site 8chan followed the Christchurch shootings in real time through the live stream, cheering Tarrant on, archiving his social media profiles and creating memes of the attack during and after its occurrence.

Direct comments to Tarrant’s announcement that he will commit the massacre combined a wealth of good luck messages and celebratory comments that mocked the increasing death toll during and proximately after the slaughter.

In this light, these threads do not remain merely chatrooms or imageboards, they become a violent community that encouraged a shooter to attack a marginalised community at a defenceless time of worship – during ritual Friday prayer.

These are communities well aware that search engines are on their side in their promotion of white supremacist ideas. As shown below, on a Brenton Tarrant thread an anonymous poster shares efforts to extend white supremacy that “a NZ lad is doing something similar on 4cuck (4chan).”

Opening the saved images from the thread, I saw a collection of cut out pieces of papers that had search result prompts such as “Muslim grooming gangs” and “UN Replacement Migration” being placed into public books discussing media and race matters.

This is an example of “earnest posting” and “real life effort posts” that are encouraged in these threads, understood as efforts that seek to extend white supremacy offline to continue the legacy of the likes of Brenton Tarrant.

Search engines are something we turn to in the quest for knowledge, but what appears to be a neutral stylistic feature of the Internet as we know it in fact paves the way for the digestion of white supremacist online content.

In this way, white supremacy becomes algorithmically engineered, charting a course to further racially dehumanising content. This illustrates an important shift that necessitates research which deviates from classifying the Internet as a raceless entity. Rather, we must consider how the features of the Internet may reinforce white violence, a form of digital settler colonialism, online and offline through everyday Internet use such as Google search engines.

This highlights that online and offline white violence do not occur in virtual vacuums – they intertwine to exacerbate white supremacy, illustrating the affordances of the Internet as an instrument but also, how it strengthens the brute force of settler colonialism.

As academic Jessie Daniels writes, “All platforms that don’t address the potential for being exploited by white supremacists upfront are going to be exploited by them,” urging the importance to move the onus away from Internet users to Internet enablers.

While the Christchurch shooting might become but a memory for some, it will resonate beyond its newsworthiness for people like myself. This was not the first time that white supremacists have staged attacks against “invaders.” It is definitely not a new phenomenon for Indigenous minorities, who have had sacred sites disturbed by the force of white supremacy. Nor was it the last shooting.

The Christchurch shooting was only one in a host of recent attacks – the Poway shooting on 27 April 2019; the Dayton shooting and El Paso shooting on 4 August 2019; the Norway mosque shooting on 11 August 2019; the Hanau, Germany shisha bar on 20 February 2020; and the Paris mosque shooting on 8 March 2020.

These came as no surprise, particularly the features of both white supremacists responsible for the Dayton shooting and the El Paso shooting. Both shooters had active histories in white supremacist online communities and notably, both shootings took place in another settler colony, America, a country built on the brute force of white supremacy against Native Americans, African Americans and albeit at a lesser ferocity directed at minorities such as Muslims and migrants.

The online accessibility of white supremacist writing, online communities and websites pose the possibility that any Internet user may also launch similar attacks, with the Internet offering a new arena for white violence. It problematises the ability of minorities to feel comfortable online and offline.

Countless minorities have been attacked in isolated incidents, vandalism is growing more common and the site of the mosque becomes macabre, a clear tactic of Tarrant to weaponize not two mosques in Aotearoa, New Zealand, but religious spaces and Jumu’ah, congregational prayer, globally.

We do not know when the next attack will be, but we do know that it is coming. Threats in the weeks leading up to this anniversary have illustrated exactly that. Of course, that is what the white supremacists want, as cliché as it is to say. They want Brenton Tarrant, and all who associate themselves with him, to become a bogeyman to us all, robbing Muslims of a feeling of safety. Careful, they’re online, planning our deaths. Careful, they’re offline, in our mosques.

An anonymous user on another Brenton Tarrant thread writes “We might get better quality effort posts in a years time.”

I am hoping to be proved wrong, but it is hard to remain optimistic. After all, we have the enormity of the Internet working against us.

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Kawsar Ali

Kawsar Ali is a Master of Research candidate at Macquarie University in the Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies Department. Her research investigates the links between race, power and the Internet, studying the term she has coined 'digital settler colonialism' online and offline. Kawsar is recipient of a domestic scholarship through the Research Training Program and Macquarie University Research Excellence Scheme. She writes at onlineother.com and tweets @orientalizm.

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