Before we dive in this dark dimension of the Internet, I would like to add a short disclaimer regarding the shocking imagery, quotes and vernacular covered in this article. I am aware of the problematic implications of further disseminating these derogatory, or outright racist materials. They are, however, a vital part of the communities studied here, and I believe there is value in getting a solid understanding of their use. As such, I do not censor any materials displayed in my case studies, but do wish to warn readers that these contain upsetting, racist or generally hateful language and imagery.
On 15 March 2019, a 28 year old man committed a deadly terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, killing 51 worshippers and injuring many more. The perpetrator announced his deeds in a post on the anonymous imageboard 8chan, hoping to inspire others with his actions. Within several months, four copycats followed his lead. All of the perpetrators, commonly referred to as ‘lone wolves’, display striking similarities, both in terms of ideological motivations, as well as their modus operandi. Each of these attacks was announced on one of the chans’ imageboards. A closer look at these platforms reveals a sphere of far-right extremism that is dedicated to discussions and memes of these lone wolves, as well as the encouragement of copycat attacks. A common misconception is that lone wolves act in isolation: contrary to what the term implies, they are rarely truly ‘lone’, since radicalization is an inherently social process (Gable & Jackson 7; Holt et al. 88; Johnson 101). In this research, I study a ‘digital turn’ of lone wolf terrorism, to understand how the chans’ social dynamics and vernacular practices enable the radicalization and encouragement of community members to act out lone wolf terrorist attacks. This research contains case studies of text and image posts discussing five lone wolf terrorists, scraped from 4chan and 8chan. To give a quick overview of these cases, I have included a timeline summarizing the events that transpired.
I will engage with the logic behind lone wolf terrorists’ various strategies of memetic warfare: a combination of information warfare and psychological warfare that revolves around the weaponization of memes and social media platforms (Goldenberg & Finkelstein 3). I examine several intricate tactics developed by the chans: 1. The use of weaponized memes, 2. Tactics of trolling and trickery to steer public perception, and 3. Methods of self-preservation. What I have found is that anons have mastered the art of memetic warfare by developing elaborate, gamified strategies. In the cases studied here, (video) games characterize the modus operandi of lone wolves, as well as the strategies of memetic warfare concocted by their following. The attacks, as well as the memes and other vernacular practices by the chans’ extremist communities, all make use of gamelike elements to various ends. Throughout this article, I will highlight three major ways in which the chans’ vernacular practices surrounding lone wolves are gamified. First, gamified memes encapsulate them in a visual style that speaks to the chans’ demographic, turns the cruel deeds of lone wolves into a spectacle, and adds interactive elements that allow anons to reenact the event. Second, lone wolves and their following collectively game the system of mainstream media, tricking news outlets to portray them in their desired ways, in an effort to achieve good ‘optics’. Lastly, lone wolves and the chans ensure self-preservation through elaborate methods to evade scrutiny from authorities and regulation. Through this cat-and-mouse-game with law enforcement, or ‘Those Who Glow’, the communities studied here make up a highly elusive form of digital extremism.
1. Gamified Memes
Memes featuring elements from video games make up the most dominant style in the vast collection of memetic expressions surrounding lone wolves. Recent trends and patterns in right wing extremism have been described as the gamification of terrorism (Ayyadi; Schlegel; Evans, “El Paso”; Mackintosh; Macklin, “Christchurch” 19; Ware 10; Cosentino 80). Following Deterding and colleagues, the phenomenon of gamification can be briefly defined as the “use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (5). The goal of gamification is generally to achieve desirable behavioral changes by making participation more engaging, for example by adding competitive elements that reward participants through point systems and leaderboards (Robson et al. 411; 415).
Ever since the 1999 Columbine massacre and the many following tragedies where video games were involved in some way, fingers have been pointed at video games as the potential culprit. In the following decades, the attribution of video games as a contributing factor to mass killings committed by young, white males has been a common misconception. Although this theory has been refuted as a moral panic and ‘a scapegoat for social ills’ (Ferguson & Ivory 48), it is to this day still given credence by government officials. While it seems little productive to look at video games as the culprit for these violent acts, their role in online rightwing extremism is still significant in other ways. The logic here is, as I will argue, inverted: instead of video games causing real mass killings, terrorist acts are transformed into video games.
Looking at the livestream footage of the Christchurch massacre, it becomes clear where some of the inspiration for the many gamified memes came from. It did not demand a whole lot from anons’ imagination to see a real life version of their favourite first-person shooter in the live streamed footage of the Christchurch attacks (Ayyadi; Macklin, “Christchurch” 19; Schlegel). The first-person point of view, combined with the held semi-automatic weapon visible in the frame, resembles the way a first-person shooter is played (Evans, “El Paso”). By adding the only missing elements–the user interface displaying hitpoints, ammunition and achievements– the attack becomes gamified: “‘Terrorism as theater’ became terrorism as video game” (Macklin, “Christchurch” 19). Instead of turning in-game violence into a real massacre, the reverse occurs here: A real mass killing is deceivingly transformed to look like a fun game (fig. 1). Disguising extremism with humorous ambiguity and pop culture aesthetics like this potentially offers access points for less politicized users to develop sympathy for far-right causes (Bogerts & Fielitz 151). To those in on the joke, the heinous act is downplayed by presenting it as a form of spectacle that objectifies the victims, while lionizing the perpetrator. Additionally, gamified memes like these provide their propagators with a shield of irony: when called out on spreading such appalling imagery, they will simply state that they were ‘just memeing’.
The gamification does not stop at altering images or videos to make the attack and the perpetrator look like parts of a video game. Like the Columbine shooters, anons create customized maps modeled after the targeted buildings (fig. 2). Some show off their reproductions of the Al Noor Mosque in Minecraft or The Sims 4, others collaborate to develop a playable Counterstrike: Global Offensive map (in which a team of counter-terrorists takes on a team of terrorists). In addition to mapping the location, anons design custom-made player and weapon skins, allowing users to assume the role of the perpetrator in their re-enactment of the massacre: “Tarrant skin in fall out [sic] game would be spectacular”, one anon replies to another user posting an image of a “Brenton Tarrant Weapon Pack”, offering custom made weapon skins for the sandbox game Garry’s Mod. Much like anons dressing up as the perpetrator, and going on a pilgrimage to the former crime scene, gamification in the literal sense (turning terrorism into an actual game) offers anons a way to relive their idol’s experience from the safety of their mom’s basement.
Lastly, gamified memes bring a competitive element to online extremism. In a 4chan thread shortly after the El Paso attack, OP adds the perpetrator to a list of American ‘high score players’. There are many posts like these, judging lone wolves by the lethalness of their attack, iterating on the older 4chan meme of ‘beating [the Virginia Tech Killer’s] high score’ (Evans, “El Paso”). While following the lead of earlier lone wolves is generally praised and encouraged, the ultimate goal is to outdo them by beating their high score (Cosentino 80). A high body count is likely desired due to its close relation to the extent of media attention the attack receives (Van Buuren 17), but also ties back to 4chan’s general obsession with masculine competition resulting in either an ‘epic win’ or an ‘epic fail’ (Beran ch. 9) The competitive element is also visible in the manifesto published by the Halle Synagogue shooter, where he set himself personal challenges (Balliet). With meme and pun-ridden titles like “Nailed it” (kill someone with a nail-bomb) and “The Way of the Autist” (kill someone with a sword), these closely follow the way achievements in games are usually formatted (fig. 3). The element of competition adds a dangerous dimension to the encouragement of copycats: Beating predecessor lone wolves at ‘their own game’ can offer another incentive to copycats.
2. (Con)trolling the narrative
Both the lone wolves and their following have an obsession with the way the attack, the perpetrator and his ideological beliefs are portrayed in media coverage. Sensemaking and storytelling by mainstream media make up a big part of what the chans describe as ‘optics’: the public perception of their extremist deeds and rhetoric. A common take on desirable optics rejects the use of violent methods; the argument here is that terrorist attacks would only harm the radical rightwing cause. This criticism is met with fierce opposition, especially on the more extremist 8chan, where a pacifist stance is often dismissed as a ‘cuckchan’ (4chan) approach. As news media are the main channel through which they can make their voices heard by the rest of the world, spreading their ideological narrative is highly dependent on ‘good’ optics. Not only do lone wolves and their following on the chans follow relevant news coverage closely, they employ various strategies to actively steer the narrative that is broadcast to the outside world. (Con)trolling the narrative is a game of power, rooted in the chans’ tradition of pursuing the lulz through trolls and pranks (Phillips, This Is Why 99). First, this practice is an attempt at manipulating media outlets to amplify and normalize extremist ideologies. Second, it is a form of reputation management: Lone wolves and sympathizing anons meticulously portray themselves in desired ways, while painting others in a bad light.
The lone wolves’ obsession with optics is frequently visible in their various means of communication. The notable fact that all lone wolves survived their attacks has been described as a deliberate goal to be able to “[…] tell their side of the story and stir ideological comrades to action” (Ware 9). Publishing a manifesto can in itself be considered an attempt to control the narrative: perpetrators who leave manifestos are in general more influential and highly regarded than those leaving a vacuum (Berger). In his announcement post on 8chan, the El Paso Shooter states that the media will frame him incorrectly, but through his ‘Notification Letter’, anons will know the truth. Another example of attempting to control the narrative is the Q&A component in the manifestos published by some of the perpetrators, where the authors answer questions by interviewing themselves (Macklin, “Christchurch” 22; Cosentino 76). The Christchurch shooter starts off with answering general questions, followed by answering questions by ‘my people/supporters’ and ultimately questions by ‘detractors’. In these one sided dialogues, the authors are in full control (fig. 4). Like a corporate PR manager sending out a press release, lone wolves hope to entice news outlets to indiscriminately copy and spread their message. The fact that Tarrant emailed the manifesto to over 30 recipients, including the Prime Minister’s office (Macklin, “Christchurch” 23), underlines this ambition.
In a 4chan thread summarizing media coverage of Philip Manshaus’ attack in Baerum, Norway, OP shares his frustration: “Anyways, shitty optics, Manshaus. By failing like this, you will achieve nothing apart from hurting your own cause – had you succeeded you might have inspired others to the prospect of martyrdom, but this? You’ve really fucked us over, ye plonker – and right before our local elections as well. Idiot”. Reactions to the attack in mainstream media are the chans’ main way of gauging optics. The attack, the perpetrators’ communication, and their mediation all have to contribute towards spreading and controlling the narrative: if this is unsuccessful, the entirety of the attack is deemed pointless, or even counterproductive.
In a sense, lone wolves are the main ‘IRL’ (in real life) representatives of their virtual communities on the chans. By committing an act of terrorism, they give up one of the chans’ most key features: their anonymity. It is therefore not surprising that the perpetrators and their sympathizing anons go to great lengths to influence the way they are portrayed in the media, wanting to look ‘good’ while taking off their Anonymous mask. The chans frequently engage in games of deception with mainstream media, in an effort to be in charge of the narrative that is broadcast to the world. Once a meme, shitpost or troll is misunderstood and publicized by mainstream media, anons join each other in a scornful celebration of their successful prank (fig. 5). A user on 4chan comments on news coverage of the Poway shooter’s manifesto: “Holy Shit! He Got the Media to Drop Redpills from His Manifesto […] These journalists literally can’t help themselves and will post anything for a scoop”. This celebration of subversive trickery is nothing new; trolling the media has always been a popular source of entertainment within chan culture (Phillips, This Is Why 99; Cosentino 77), but here has the added political goal of hijacking the narrative to make mainstream media “unwitting mouthpieces for extremism” (Phillips, Oxygen 7). In addition to providing an exciting activity to collectively engage in, playful methods of trolling news outlets and other normies steer public perception, and misdirect investigations.
3. Evading Those Who Glow
Just like anons often accuse lone wolves and each other of being a ‘psyop’ (part of psychological operations) or a ‘shill’, there is another conspiracy theory at play in this constant paranoid mudslinging. Many anons hold a firm belief that their platforms are infiltrated by intelligence agencies like the FBI and the CIA. To put it in their own terms: anons suspect ‘glow in the darks’ and ‘alphabet boys’ (federal government law enforcers) to be ‘fedposting’ in the ‘honeypot’ (sting operation) that is 4chan, to make sure that those breaking the law get ‘v&’ (‘vanned’: arrested) and problematic content gets ‘shoahed’ (removed). Because of the ever looming threat of law enforcement, the chans have built elaborate defense mechanisms in their vernacular practices to ensure self preservation. Intricate field guides give detailed instructions on how to detect and counteract ‘Those Who Glow’ (fig. 6). Anons make use of codified expressions and disclaimers, and discuss how to avoid getting caught to prevent self-incrimination. The chans’ collective engagement in these cat-and-mouse-games with law enforcement provides online rightwing extremism with a defense mechanism that makes them hard to govern.
The general belief seems to be that federal government law enforcers do not just browse the chans to gather intelligence, but actively participate in discussions to steer away from certain topics or to entrap individuals into sharing their criminal intentions. In order to counteract such practices, 8chan provides a link to “The Gentleperson’s Guide to Forum Spies” laying out “COINTELPRO Techniques for dilution, misdirection and control of a internet forum”. This document, written by an unknown author in the style of a leaked intelligence agency memo, can be found on various online forums and blogs. Techniques like ‘forum sliding’, ‘topic dilution’ and ‘anger trolling’ are explained to inform anons on how their discussion board might be actively manipulated by infiltrators. While it is hard to verify or refute these theories, one could assume (and hope) that intelligence agencies indeed have some kind of presence within the chans’ extremist communities. By letting their imagination run wild in the theorycrafting of the possible ways in which this is done, anons produce another narrative of ‘us versus them’.
As a result, some anons directly address Those Who Glow in their posts. The meme in figure 7 addresses ‘federal agents’ in a taunting way, playing with the uncertainty of gauging intent when it comes to posts on the chans. The OP seen in figure 8 taunts authorities by stating that no matter how much they ‘kvetch’ (Yiddish for complain) or ‘astroturf’ (a form of shilling), the ‘awakening of white men’ cannot be undone. Posts like these suggest that the authors either feel invincible, or at least want to make the particular audience they are addressing feel like they are. A similar power game was planned by the Halle shooter, who planted little notes in his bedroom for investigators with a search warrant, saying ‘Niete’ (try again). These posts and notes highlight the playful nature of the cat-and-mouse-game lone wolves and their following engage in, suggesting that to some, these extremist practices are really perceived as a fun, exciting game.
It should by now be clear that the chans developed their own vernacular language. Reading some of the posts, full of coded terms and obscure cultural references, can feel like deciphering a foreign language. In addition to its role as cultural capital, enabling collective identity formation, this coded language can be used to organize secretly (Goldenberg & Finkelstein 3) and avoid legal repercussions (Ganesh 39). The chans’ ever evolving dictionary of derogatory terms like ‘ZOGbot’ and ‘mudslime’ likely make it even harder for content moderation systems (and hate speech laws) to keep up. In addition to using coded terms, anons who feel their post might include too bold of a statement, add a disclaimer to avoid self-incrimination. One of these disclaimers caught on, and is now a common meme. Anons attempt to invalidate their posts containing real-life threats by adding the words ‘in Minecraft’ at the end. By noting that they are only talking about an innocent game, anons feel safe to discuss extremist strategies, and tout future attacks. In the post in figure 9, OP wonders why lone wolves are not targeting elites–‘in minecraft’–instead of civilians. Better safe than sorry, he concludes with another disclaimer stating the satirical nature of his post. The Poway shooter uses this disclaimer in his manifesto when encouraging potential copycats to follow his lead: “It is so easy to log on to Minecraft and get away with burning a synagogue (or mosque) to the ground if you’re smart about it” (Earnest). It is unlikely such a disclaimer would clear their post from any assumed serious intent in a legal setting. The meme is thus often used in a half-joking, taunting way, meant to convey: kidding–not kidding; catch me if you can. Just like using coded terms and playing power games with Those Who Glow, the ‘in Minecraft’ disclaimer represents the ambiguity and playfulness of online extremism.
A Field Guide to Ludified Extremism on the Chans
In order to unravel the logic behind the chans’ various tactics for memetic warfare, I described three major strategies employed by anons that are all gamified in a sense. The first of these is the most literal manifestation of this phenomenon: Gamified memes turn terrorism into a video game, rather than the other way around. Massacres are presented as innocent gameplay to normalize violence and extremist rhetoric, and (customized) games offer fans the ability to ‘larp’ as their lone wolf idol in their own reenactment of the attack. Additionally, gamified memes add a dangerous competitive element to this form of rightwing extremism: lone wolves challenge others–and themselves–to outdo their predecessors by beating their ‘high score’. A second game anons collectively engage in revolves around gaming the system of mainstream media and other normies. Anons obsess over maintaining good ‘optics’, and make collective attempts at (con)trolling the narrative. In the chans’ memetic warfare, meme magic and shitposting are the main propaganda tools, serving as weapons of mass deception to amplify and normalize extremist ideologies. The third ludic strategy for memetic warfare I described concerns the cat-and-mouse-game between the chans and law enforcement. Elaborate field guides inform users on how to identify ‘Those Who Glow’ and how to nullify their techniques. Through the use of coded language and irony disclaimers, anons attempt to evade content moderation systems and legal repercussions. These strategies all contribute to the communities’ elusiveness and ensuring the preservation of the chans’ vernacular canon.
The community studied here borders between a dangerous terrorist cell of white supremacists, a dark fandom that idolizes mass murderers, and a random collection of edgy strangers revelling in dank memes and offensive lulz. My research (the full version is available here) has been an attempt to contribute to a better understanding of these modern forms of online extremism. It is paramount to study their ever-evolving ways, in order to level the playing field on which these extremist games are played out, and eventually nullify the elaborate techniques developed by the chans. Further examining these strategies of memetic warfare employed by anons could prove to be useful in detecting online radicalization, as well as for developing methods and tools to counteract their ways of spreading hateful content online.
Ayyadi, Kira. “Anti-semitic attack in Halle: The „Gamification“ of Terror – when hate becomes a game.” Belltower.News, 11 Oct. 2019. www.belltower.news, https://www.belltower.news/anti-semitic-attack-in-halle-the-gamification-of-terror-when-hate-becomes-a-game-92439/.
Balliet, Stephan. Der Plan. 9 Oct. 2019.
Beran, Dale. It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office. First edition, EPUB, All Points Books, 2019.
Berger, J. M. “The Dangerous Spread of Extremist Manifestos.” The Atlantic, 26 Feb. 2019. www.theatlantic.com, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/christopher-hasson-was-inspired-breivik-manifesto/583567/.
Buuren, Jelle van. “The Multitude of Lone Wolf Terrorism.” Terrorism: An Electronic Journal and Knowledge Base, vol. 1, no. 1, Aug. 2012, p. 24.
Cosentino, Gabriele. Social Media and the Post-Truth World Order: The Global Dynamics of Disinformation. Springer Nature, 2020.
Earnest, John Timothy. An Open Letter. 27 Apr. 2019.
Evans, Robert. “The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror.” Bellingcat, 4 Aug. 2019, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2019/08/04/the-el-paso-shooting-and-the-gamification-of-terror/.
Ferguson, Christopher J., and James D. Ivory. “A Futile Game: On the Prevalence and Causes of Misguided Speculation about the Role of Violent Video Games in Mass School Shootings.” Studies in Media and Communications, edited by Glenn W. Muschert and Johanna Sumiala, vol. 7, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2012, pp. 47–67. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1108/S2050-2060(2012)0000007007.
Gable, Gerry, and Paul Jackson. Lone Wolves: Myth or Reality? Searchlight Magazine, 2011. Zotero, http://nectar.northampton.ac.uk/id/eprint/6014.
Ganesh, Bharath. “The Ungovernability of Digital Hate Culture.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 71, no. 2, Dec. 2018, pp. 30–49.
Goldenberg, Alex, and Joel Finkelstein. Cyber Swarming, Memetic Warfare and Viral Insurgency: How Domestic Militants Organize on Memes to Incite Violent Insurrection and Terror Against Government and Law Enforcement. The Network Contagion Research Institute, 7 Feb. 2020, p. 10.
Holt, Thomas J., et al. “Loners, Colleagues, or Peers? Assessing the Social Organization of Radicalization.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 44, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 83–105. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1007/s12103-018-9439-5.
Johnson, Jessica. “The Self-Radicalization of White Men: ‘Fake News’ and the Affective Networking of Paranoia.” Communication, Culture and Critique, vol. 11, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 100–15. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1093/ccc/tcx014.
Macklin, Graham. “The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age.” CTC Sentinel, vol. 12, no. 6, July 2019, p. 57.
Phillips, Whitney. The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online. Data & Society Research Institute, 2018.
—. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. The MIT Press, 2015.
Robson, Karen, et al. “Is It All a Game? Understanding the Principles of Gamification.” Business Horizons, vol. 58, no. 4, July 2015, pp. 411–20. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2015.03.006.
Schlegel, Linda. “Can You Hear Your Call of Duty? The Gamification of Radicalization and Extremist Violence.” European Eye on Radicalization, 17 Mar. 2020. eeradicalization.com, https://eeradicalization.com/can-you-hear-your-call-of-duty-the-gamification-of-radicalization-and-extremist-violence/.
Tarrant, Brenton Harrison. The Great Replacement: Towards a New Society. 15 Mar. 2019.Ware, Jacob. Testament to Murder: The Violent Far-Right’s Increasing Use of Terrorist Manifestos. p. 22.