On March 15, a gunman shot dead 50 people in two Christchurch mosques. It was the worst terror attack and deadliest mass shooting in modern New Zealand history. It was also a symptom of a growing, global problem: online hate and its real-world consequences.
We don't yet know all the details about the attack. It would be unfair to blame technology entirely, given Islamophobia and white nationalism existed long before online forums.
But technology played a big part. The gunman was likely radicalised by the alt-right (a fringe, fascist movement found mostly online). Before the attack, he set up social media accounts, posted photos of his weapons, and linked a rambling manifesto referencing internet subculture. He live-streamed the attack on Facebook, and from there it spread around the world.
Earlier this year, I read "Troll Hunting" by Australian journalist and cyberhate expert, Ginger Gorman. Over five years, Gorman gained unprecedented access to the lives and thoughts of numerous predator trolls — people who threaten or attack individuals or groups through the use of electronic devices, causing real-life harm to their targets. Many of the world's most notorious predator trolls are white supremacists.
Following the attack, I messaged Gorman, asking if the gunman is likely a predator troll. He's an archetypal predator troll, she said.
Gorman is in New Zealand this week to speak at an Institute of Directors conference about cyberhate and corporate responsibility, but made time for an interview with Stuff. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
Can you explain how your research sheds light on what happened in Christchurch?
"The Christchurch killer fits the profile of a predator troll very well, unfortunately. He was, by all accounts, on the internet since he was a tiny kid, and he was quite isolated. So he likely spent a lot of time imbibing all those ideologies you find in predator trolls: misogyny, white supremacy, and other types of hatred.
"He hung out on 4Chan and 8Chan and those kinds of internet cesspits. He was encouraged in his actions by other users. I've seen posts where he was egged on after he explained what he was going to do. So he wasn't a lone wolf at all.
"He also employed a technique called 'media f......', which is a tactic where [terrorists] essentially co-opt the media into proliferating their messages. He certainly succeeded in that. I know The Daily Mail published his manifesto in full. The document is full of media bait. Through it, [the gunman] is signalling to his white supremacy community.
"Those communities use a lot of memes. And they're not recent, they're actually very old. So unless you've been watching them and are embedded in them, you don't know what they are. It's very easy to lap that stuff up if you're a journalist and not putting enough thought into [coverage]."
What have your trolling sources been saying since the March 15 terrorist attack?
"One of the presidents of a big trolling syndicate told me almost immediately [after the attack], the gunman's video was on internet relay chat (a forum where a lot of predator trolls communicate with each other). These trolls often work in big syndicates and they're communicating all the time. The manifesto was also on there immediately, and is there still.
"Facebook just wasn't quick enough taking [the video] down. Six months ago, I asked Facebook if Facebook Live was safe, because at that point there had already been a lot of rapes and murders broadcast on similar services. They assured me it was safe. It wasn't though, was it?"
Predator trolling, radicalisation, and terrorism. How does your research suggest these issues are connected?
"They're not really separable in a case like [Christchurch], or even with most predator trolling. These guys are often online from a very young age, completely unsupervised. They often come from difficult family circumstances. They're essentially parented by the internet and they get radicalised into trolling and in the case of the Christchurch killer they get radicalised into terrorism.
"This isn't that uncommon. There are two other terrorists mentioned in my book. When [the Christchurch attack] happened, I think a lot of people thought it was a world first. But it wasn't. For somebody watching this space, this sort of thing was devastatingly obvious. I've been writing about this for five years.
"It's amazing to me it took a massacre of this kind for our leaders to take action, and for Facebook to take notice. They've known this was coming."
Were you surprised the gunman wasn't on any watch lists?
"So the police came out and said we had no idea, [the gunman] wasn't on a watch list. This is really common in instances like this. Frankly, law enforcement is completely out of its depth here. Police have to be better resourced and trained, and they have to know the relevant laws. Otherwise, we're going to see this again.
"There's evidence the Christchurch killer was posting all over Twitter at least a couple of days before the attack. If the police were watching, there was enough time [to intervene]. It's just they weren't looking in the right places.
"But the other thing is, social media companies really have a case to answer here. They've been claiming they're not publishers, they've been bleating about fixing cyberhate since 2006. The fact of the matter is if they wanted to fix it, they would. They make billions of dollars off our data and they have the best engineers in the world working for them.
"Governments have to step in and regulate the space, because [companies] aren't going to do it on their own. I'd like to see a legislated duty of care for social media platforms, including those like Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan as well as Facebook and Twitter and the like, because otherwise things aren't going to change."
Do you think the Christchurch attack could represent a turning point in how seriously society takes cyberhate?
"There are a lot of signs political leaders and social media leaders are paying attention now. I mean, it's tragic it took a massacre of this scale for that to happen. But maybe this is the moment for change. And maybe, to honour the lives of those who were slaughtered, this is the least we can do. To make the world safer for those left behind, and for our children.
"I think about my two little girls — I don't want them growing up in a world where they can get killed because of what happens on the internet."
Writing this book, and now speaking about it, must have come at a personal cost. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how you're dealing with it?
"I became the subject of an orchestrated online hate campaign in 2013, which is how I became interested in this topic. I'd never heard anything about trolling before, it was absolutely terrifying, we got death threats. That's what led me to talking to trolls and finding vicious, dangerous trolls. Having said that, I had no idea what I was walking into.
"My book links predator trolling to murder, terrorism, domestic violence, incitement to suicide. Writing it was incredibly traumatic. By the end of it, I was really quite alcoholic and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. So, yes, I'm undergoing a specialised course of therapy to deal with that. This stuff isn't pretty, but it's a crucial issue for society and I'd say, it's an emergency."