After each new horrific mass shooting, an all-too-familiar cycle often plays out: Reporters (myself included) race to attempt to unpack an alleged shooter’s possible motivations by piecing together clues from their social media accounts and online postings before it all gets scrubbed from the internet. We do this in the hopes that it will somehow provide a window into their mindset in the months leading up to the attack, or at least bring us somewhat closer to answering that ultimately unanswerable question: Why?
But this approach carries with it potentially dangerous unintended consequences. At least 49 people were killed on Friday during attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and like clockwork the cycle began almost immediately. But this time it was a bit different. The alleged shooter himself had provided the world with more answers and possible motivations for his own actions than it seemed the internet knew how to handle.
Hours before the attack, the alleged shooter took to Twitter and 8chan—an online messaging board known for its distinct brand of toxicity—to announce his plans and share links to a Facebook account which later live-streamed 17 minutes of the massacre. He also linked to a 74-page document littered with awkwardly placed ironic memes and references to various toxic ideologies that many news outlets have since deemed his “manifesto.” On 8chan, the links were accompanied by a request: “I have provided links to my [sic] my writings below, please do your part by spreading my message, making memes and shitposting as you usually do.”
The internet largely did just that. The gory first-person Facebook video of the shooting quickly went viral, spreading across social media platforms like wildfire before platforms could take it down. Since then, pundits, analysts, and internet sleuths have been publicly dissecting and interpreting each line of his lengthy manifesto—along with his equally toxic social media presence—turning public discussion into something closer to a string of far-right rabbithole keywords.
There was no need for internet sleuths to track down his social media accounts and comb them for clues, as he broadcast their existence publicly: They were, predictably, filled with more made-to-provoke explanations for his actions. It was “a very clear instance of media manipulation,” designed with the world’s eye in mind, says Whitney Phillips, a Data and Society researcher who specializes in troll culture and the amplification of extremism online.
“The goal of media manipulation as an act is to generate the most amount of coverage possible, including intense focus on the perpetrator,” says Phillips. “When journalists pore over motives and pore over all of the details of that person’s life, even if the reporter is disgusted by their actions, that person still becomes the protagonist of the movie—and that’s their goal: to be the central figure in this play.”
When we talk about the actions of extremists—especially those with a hefty online presence—there’s this tendency to take their statements and assertions at face value. It makes sense: If someone, say, regularly tweets out links to the Daily Stormer and predominantly interacts with neo-Nazis and white supremacists online, it’s reasonable to assume they probably share those views. However, this approach fails to take into account the individual’s proclivity towards media manipulation.
In the case of the Christchurch shooter, Phillips says, he displayed “a self-conscious awareness of” the internet at large’s tendency to scour an alleged gunman’s posting history for clues, “which is what makes choosing to jump at the manipulator’s behest so incredibly dangerous.”
Engaging with the toxic content produced by media manipulators makes it nearly impossible to avoid amplifying their views. The curse of the amplification game is that an idea or construct gets more powerful every time it’s consumed, or rebroadcast.
To act more responsibly, Phillips recommends reframing the narrative so that it’s no longer the manipulator’s story. “The problem with so much of this coverage is that it falls into the trap of: It’s their world and we’re just living in it. Why does it get to be their story?” she added. “It just takes a lot of conscientious effort to figure out what are the bigger stories and how do we sidestep the stories that are ultimately just distractions.”