Over the first few days after the Christchurch mosque massacre, two interlocking narratives developed. One was tallying up the carnage, and the other was the story of the alleged killer’s radicalization through social media. And of course, both narratives were driven in part by the conspiracy theories that both the killer espoused through his manifesto and that instantly sprouted up around the shooting.
None of this is new. Self-radicalization via social media is a huge issue that major tech companies are struggling to contain. And instant conspiracy theories are common to mass tragedies now, as we’ve seen time and time again in the last ten years.
But the reaction to the New Zealand massacre had one major difference that anyone who keeps tabs on conspiracy/extremist culture should be screaming to the high heavens about: the response of the US government to amplify, rather than condemn, the killer’s racism and the conspiracy theorists who push it.
In the past, government officials and politicians would immediately slather the post-tragedy airwaves with their solemn calls for “thoughts and prayers,” then the gun control debate would re-start. But this time, because of the massacre’s location and victims (ie, Muslims), two of the biggest mouthpieces for the president didn’t outright condemn it, but instead gave the killer’s rancid ideas an infinitely bigger platform than just the shitposters on 8chan.
First, President Trump himself retweeted a self-identified QAnon acolyte’s post during his weekend-long airing of grievances.
Then on Monday, senior presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox and Friends that the killer’s manifesto barely mentions Donald Trump, and that “people should read it in its entirety” to fully understand the killer’s motives rather than simply pin it on their favorite presidential punching bag.
So just in one day, you had the president putting a deranged conspiracy theory in front of 50 million Twitter followers, and the president’s closest adviser telling the president’s favorite TV show that a manifesto used as the justification for mass murder should be completely read in order to understand that it lets that president off the hook.
Both represent a new low in the administration’s embrace of fringe conspiracy theories and racism. And both are likely to point more vulnerable people toward self-radicalization, through watching YouTube videos, sliding down the rabbit hole of racist message boards, and “researching” the demented and discredited ideas in the manifesto.
There are going to be consequences to both of these amplifications.
QAnon is not directly linked to the Christchurch shooting, the killer’s manifesto never mentions it, and the tweet that Trump shared wasn’t about QAnon itself (it was related to Trump inexplicable griping about a Fox News host being suspended). But as I pointed out in a piece for the Daily Dot, there are a number of similarities between the ideas in the manifesto and the philosophy of QAnon, as well as between the manifesto and the best-selling QAnon “book” that came out a few weeks ago.
Beyond that, Trump is inextricably linked to the QAnon conspiracy, since it revolves almost entirely around supposed secret actions Trump is taking to purge the deep state, and the clues he’s supposedly leaving on 8chan through Q posts. The same 8chan where the alleged shooter posted his manifesto. And QAnon believers have been quick to write off the massacre as a false flag staged by the same deep state Trump is supposedly struggling against, carried out (or even faked) as an excuse to pull 8Chan off the internet and silence QAnon.
So Trump magnified QAnon, and QAnon magnifies the conspiracy theories that minimize the suffering of the victims, and maximize the supposed grievances of the president and his followers. Indeed, prominent Q followers have spent the past two days crowing about the exposure that Trump gave their cult leader’s insane ramblings. Q even referenced the retweet in subsequent drops. It’s a big deal in this community, and this community is violent and dangerous.
How many people will be turned on to Q’s twisted notions of tarring our political enemies with fake allegations as a prelude to violently purging them? Even one is too many.
As for Conway, she’s trying to show the president her loyalty by running interference for him by any means necessary. To be clear, the manifesto does NOT exonerate Trump, instead calling him a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” This is the same “white identity” that the killer felt was being threatened by the existence of Muslims living in a mainly white country.
Beyond that, journalists and experts who study the intersection of white extremism and internet culture warn that the manifesto should NOT be read at all, at least not at face value. Instead of being looked at as the cogent writing of a rational mind, it’s almost certainly a mix of calculated lies, targeted trolling, and hidden “red pills” designed to get people turned on to concepts in radical white identity. All of it is meant to be digested by a mainstream media that isn’t familiar with these concepts, and spit back to a public who isn’t familiar with them either.
It’s not meant to explain an attack, it’s meant to radicalize more people into carrying out their own attacks.
Conway giving this rancid manifesto legitimacy is inexplicable. Or at least it would be in any other administration. But in Trump-land, anything good for the boss is good for the country. And so, because the manifesto doesn’t directly say “I did this because of Trump,” it exonerates him. And because it exonerates him, it should be read by everyone. Frankly, she should be fired for it. But nothing will happen.
The consequences of internet self-radicalization are going to be with us for a long time, and they’re not getting any better, as tech companies struggle to contain the mess they’ve been too lax to stop. The least we can do is not have some of the loudest voices in national media giving these ideas legitimacy and new recipients.
More people will be turned on to QAnon and radical white nationalism because of Trump and Conway, and the two concepts are inseparable from each other. When the consequences of that hit home in America, thoughts and prayers won’t do a damn thing to fix the damage.