Halle is the latest in a string of terrorist attacks inspired by radical-right ideology. It follows the same pattern as its predecessors: a manifesto appears online along with a livestream of the attack. Is this becoming the new modus operandi of the violent radical-right? What are the policy implications?
Manifestos and the radical-right go hand-in-hand. In July 2011, before committing one of the most lethal attacks inspired by this ideology, Anders Breivik wrote a 1,500 page manifesto that he sent to 1,000 people online. Terrorism expert, Thomas Hegghammer, described his ideology as “the closest thing yet to a Christian version of Al-Qaeda”.
As it happens, Breivik’s manifesto is very much the equivalent to Al-Qaeda’s ‘Inspire’. J.M Berger has argued how Inspire was innovative because of “its combination of terrorist how-to tactics with propaganda and incitement”. Breivik’s manifesto follows pretty much the same formula.
Breivik is not the only example. Dylan Roof, who killed black worshippers at Charleston church in 2015, created his own website; while the El Paso, Christchurch and Poway attackers all posted a manifesto on 8chan’s /pol/ message board,.
For security forces, manifestos can be a great source of intel, with the caveat that some of the material simply tries to ‘troll’ readers – a practice known as shitposting, which is popular within sections of the radical-right that are obsessed with memes and subversive internet subcultures.
But fundamentally what these manifestos tell us about the broader movement is that, except for some cases where allegiance to a group is still strong (think: National Action-related arrests in the UK), most plotters and attackers rather seem to be drawing inspiration from specific individuals or influences. Unlike jihadis, where several plotters were inspired by the actions of groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, even without being formally affiliated with them, radical-right terrorists tend to ‘bowl alone’ or focus on an individual for inspiration.
Plotters in the radical-right are also much more decentralised. A study from 2015 argued that the threat from organised radical-right groups, at least in western Europe, is significantly lower than 20 or 30 years ago. In lieu of groups, manifestos play a big role in making these ideas accessible, shareable and identifiable.
Manifestos are hard to tackle because they have a domino effect: as more manifestos are published, certain ideas start gaining traction and becoming more influential. The great replacement conspiracy theory was mentioned by two other perpetrators after the Christchurch killer popularised it in his manifesto.
Available evidence suggests that manifestos work in inciting others to commit terrorist attacks. A New York Times investigation found that Breivik served as a source of inspiration for at least five other terror attacks, including attacks targeting Jewish people, Muslims and politicians. Court records show that Christopher Hasson, the US Coast Guard Lieutenant who plotted an attack against politicians and journalists, used Breivik’s manifesto as a guide to identify targets and weapons. Almost every radical-right perpetrator this year has mentioned Christchurch.
Publishing a manifesto serves one clear purpose: to broaden the reach of the message and to increase media attention around the attack. Mainstream media must be very aware of this and avoid amplifying the reach of terrorist content. In the UK, MailOnline has received condemnation for making the Christchurch manifesto available to view after the attack. Policymakers need to resuscitate this debate, especially when incidents of violence are concerned.
Both the Christchurch and Poway killers livestreamed their attacks on Facebook Live, while the Halle perpetrator posted it on Twitch. Even if the video of the Halle shooting was initially on a smaller platform, it rapidly spilled over into more mainstream platforms, like Twitter, and was widely shared on white supremacist Telegram channels as a form of ‘sainthood’.
Livestreaming adds a layer of goriness to the radical-right, in a similar fashion to how ISIS decided to release footage beheading prisoners. While livestreaming has only become a trend very recently, it serves as a powerful propaganda tool.
Precisely because it is very recent, there are few resources in place to muster an immediate response to livestreaming. Trying to counter this new influx of harmful material has put social media companies on the offensive.
After the Christchurch massacre video went viral, Facebook restricted its livestreaming function by introducing a ‘one-strike’ policy warning for members who break the rules. A lot of efforts to counter this threat have been mounted through the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which brings together all big tech companies. To prevent videos from going viral, the GIFCT can share a ‘hash’ (digital footprint) of the material to help all companies track down and stop material moving between platforms.
So far there are some positive signs that this approach is working, as the Halle video did not go viral on big platforms in the same way as Christchurch did. After removing the video from its platform, Twitch shared the hash with other companies in the GIFCT, which prevented the video from gaining traction on larger platforms.
While the GIFCT is making an effort to bring smaller social media companies under its umbrella, there is a risk that platforms such as GAB, 8chan/8kun or 4chan, notoriously popular with the radical-right, could serve as the perfect unregulated space for this material to flourish.
As with manifestos, the mainstream media cannot evade dealing responsibly with this content, particularly regarding its coverage. Too often we have seen terrorist material, including footage of victims, being widely broadcasted in a sensationalist manner.
In an exemplary move, broadcasting regulators in New Zealand fined Sky NZ $4,000 for airing parts of the Christchurch livestream. Other governments and regulators should follow suit— particularly when it becomes problematic.
A new trend?
Going on recent radical-right terror events, it seems that the manifesto-livestream-lone-actor modus operandi is here to stay, given how effective it has proven in gaining media attention and inspiring future perpetrators.
Christchurch showed how there is political willingness to tackle terrorist content online. As we expect more attacks in the future to include livestreaming, tech companies need to be prepared. But let’s not forget that Breivik’s manifesto is still only two-clicks-away on Google.