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The Globalisation of Right-Wing Copycat Attacks

The Globalisation of Right-Wing Copycat Attacks
16th March 2020 Friederike Wegener
In Insights

The World Wide Web unites the world by connecting people from far off places. From Norway to New Zealand, across the ocean to the USA and back to Germany. Violent extremist ideology, propaganda of the deed, and the motivation to move extremism out of the online sphere and into the offline world has travelled increasingly fast around the globe. Last year we witnessed how technology has allowed ideas for terrorist attacks to become global and transnational. From Norway (22 July 2011) to Christchurch, New Zealand (15 March 2019) to Poway, USA (27 April 2019) and El Paso, USA (3 August 2019), back to Bærum, Norway (10 August 2019) and finally to Halle, Germany (9 October 2019). Right-wing copycat attacks have shaken our societies. This insight looks into how the perpetrators inspired, taught and motivated each other, outlining the destructive power of an unregulated Internet.

Anders Breivik shot 77 people in 2011 after publishing a 1516-page manifesto to propagate his right-wing extremist ideology. Eight years later, Brenton Tarrant, referring to Breivik as a role model, followed with a similar attack, shooting 51 people in a mosque in New Zealand, after having circulated his own manifesto. The attackers of Poway, El Paso and Halle also published manifestos of their own of various lengths online. Each of them referring to the previous attack. John Earnest, who shot one person in Poway, even mentioned Tarrant ten times in his writing.

The Christchurch attacker’s manifesto The Great Replacement exemplifies the global reception of ideological elements. Tarrant draws on the idea of the Great Replacement, originating from the French far-right and propagated by the Europe-wide movement Generation Identity. The El Paso and Poway attackers also make explicit and implicit reference to the Great Replacement. But the trans-nationalisation of ideological elements extends beyond the fear of the replacement of the “white race” by “non-whites.” The extreme right increasingly draws on other topics, such as environmentalism. Tarrant described himself as an “eco-fascist,” an idea deeply rooted in the Nazi ideology of protecting the “blood and soil” of the fatherland. The El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, also takes this up, arguing that environmental degradation is caused by high birth-rates of the “non-whites,” overpopulation and immigration. Additionally, all perpetrators acted according to the accelerationist ideology, believing that change that cannot be brought about by political voting but instead only by violent means, undermining social stability.

The global connection of violent right-wing extremism is not limited to ideological elements; successful modus operandi also crosses borders. Copying the Christchurch attacker, all of the following attackers announced their attacks online. The Christchurch attacker announced his attack on Twitter and 8chan. The latter was also used by the Poway and El Paso attackers, while the attacks in Bærum and Halle were announced on Endchan and Meguca respectively. Live-streaming the killing on Facebook is another characteristic of the Christchurch attack, now labelled the first “Internet-native” terrorist attack.

The use of the Internet for connection, radicalisation and recruitment of individuals to extremism is known, but 2019 demonstrated that new technologies have also globalised propaganda of the deed, stepping out of the online world to the offline one. When the Christchurch attacker insisted individuals stop “shitposting” (the idea that producing huge amounts of disruptive online content will provoke emotional reactions and prevent productive discussion) and start “real life effort posts,” individuals around the world followed. The attacker from Poway wrote “he showed me it could be done” and the Bærum attacker glorified Brenton Tarrant for the propaganda of the deed by posting “it’s my time, I was elected by Saint Tarrant.” Users of the extreme right 8chan board had also devoted considerable energy to spread the Christchurch manifesto in order to encourage more shootings. The Chief Product Officer of YouTube, Neal Mohan, admitted that the video of the Christchurch attack was uploaded at a frequency that equalled “one per second in the hours after the shooting,” not taking into account the uploads on Twitter and Reddit. Real life action is further motivated through the gamification of acts. The online community counts scores and compares those of different attacks. ‘Scores’ refers to the number of individuals killed. The Poway shooter was ridiculed after his attack for the little score he achieved. This international competition is likely to motivate individuals to make their attacks deadlier and deadlier.

If we want to prevent terrorist attacks, tech companies, governments and civil society organisations have to come together to create mechanisms to prevent, uncover and delete hate speech and extremist content online. The speed with which inspiration and motivation travel around the world requires that responses not only keep up, but in fact surpass technological trends.