The Age of Terrorism Meets the Era of the Troll

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On Friday a man in his late 20s was charged with murdering at least 49 people and seriously injuring 20 more in a terror attack targeting two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.

During the attack, the man livestreamed a video of his murders on Facebook. He also posted a link to an 87-page white nationalist manifesto online. In the document, under the heading “From where did you receive/research/develop your beliefs?” the murderer responds, “The internet, of course. You will not find the truth anywhere else.”

It is not uncommon for terrorists to release a rambling, barely coherent manifesto. And it is usually wise to ignore them, since they only feed the murderer’s desire for attention. But the document left by the New Zealand shooter (whom I will not name) is worth examining, because it gives us insight into a new type of terrorist—the terrorist as troll.

The New Zealand shooter is an extreme example of an increasingly common disaffected person—mostly young men—whose worldview is shaped largely by an evil online culture. Here are six characteristics of these “trolls.”

1. They are addicted to trolling.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “trolling” as making a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response. Trolling is commonly found in almost every area where people congregate online. But for many lost young men—a group that includes more than just white nationalists—trolling has become almost a way of life.

Just as some children crave attention so much they exhibit inappropriate behaviors to gain attention from their parents, thousands of young men spend their days and nights trying to gain some sort of validation by trolling people online. This is why the internet is flooded with works, such as hate-filled memes, that are used not to persuade but to annoy. As the New Zealand shooter says, “Create memes, post memes, and spread memes. Memes have done more for the ethnonationalist movement than any manifesto.”

2. They are committed to transgressivism.

Since the 1960s, a large segment of American culture has embraced transgressivism, a movement that celebrates the violation of socially accepted norms or morally imposed boundaries. The political and cultural left championed transgressivism when it was tearing down norms established by Christianity. But now that we are shifting to a post-Christian era, we are beginning to see the next phase of transgressivism—and it frightens even progressives.

As Angela Nagle writes in Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, “The ease with which this broader alt-right and alt-light milieu can use transgressive styles today shows how superficial and historically accidental it was that it ended up being in any way associated with the socialist left.” As with the left, these new trolls are dogmatically opposed to orthodox Christianity. As Nagle adds, “Today, the appeal of [Nietzschean] anti-moralism is strong on the alt-right because their goals necessitate the repudiation of Christian codes that Nietzsche characterized as slave morality.”

3. They are incoherently trans-political.

The New Zealand shooter has been described as being on the “far right” or the “extreme right.” This is primarily because the media tend to lump all white nationalists as being on the right end of the political spectrum. But the right-left dichotomy doesn’t often fit with online-based extremism. It is more accurate to consider them through the lens of the horseshoe theory, a concept in political science that claims the far left and the far right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, closely resemble one another, much like the ends of a horseshoe.

Trolls like the New Zealand shooter aren’t thinking systematically or attempting to develop a coherent worldview. Instead, they pick-and-choose whatever political elements fit with their personality or their sub-tribe’s ethos—even if the result is incoherent and contradictory.

For example, the New Zealand shooter says he’s left-wing or right-wing depending on the definition. He says the same about the label “socialist,” though he emphatically states he wants no part of conservatism. He admires President Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” and yet rejects him as a “policy maker and leader.” The shooter also claims he was formerly a communist, an anarchist, and a libertarian. He says he’s no neo-nazi, but rather an “eco-fascist by nature.” His primary label for himself is “Ethno-Nationalist Eco-Fascist.”

“The nation with the closest political and social values to my own,” he adds, “is the People’s Republic of China.”

4. They are disconnected from their true selves.

None of the shooter’s trans-political views fits together or makes sense—which may or may not be the point. The troll may actually believe what he says. Or he may not. He may not even know himself.

The main posture of extreme online culture is ironic detachment, a distancing of one’s “true” self from one’s online persona. If anyone judges their comments, actions, or ideas, they can fall back on the excuse that they don’t really believe it themselves; they are merely trying to get a reaction out of people. Often, when the people behind anonymous white nationalists accounts are revealed, they claim they are not really a racist or antisemite, they were just “trolling.”

At some point, as he New Zealand shooter’s manifesto makes clear, who they are as real humans gets so tangled up in their ironic online pose that they can’t separate what they really believe from what they claim to believe to get attention.

5. They are dangerously and inconsistently tribal.

Tribalism, the exaltation of one’s tribe above other groups, has been the default condition for all of human history. Like has tended to align with like, whether at the level of family, clan, or ethnic community. But tribalism began to break down with the rise of Christianity—a religion that includes all tongues and tribes—and was, with the rise of the nation-state, largely replaced by nationalism. The weakening of family and community ties in the West also removed opportunities to express and benefit from in-group loyalty.

While the traditional forms of tribalism were always dangerous, its absence has created additional problems. Many young men in the West no longer feel connected to any broader community or larger purpose. Having no true kinship with their own neighbors, they create an abstract community (“white people,” “Europeans”) that will admit them simply because of the color of their skin. This also gives them a mission (e.g., defending against ethnic replacement, or white genocide) and an “outgroup” to align against (i.e., foreigners and all non-white people groups).

But because they exist primarily in the virtual world, their allegiance to the abstraction completely replaces any true feeling of responsibility to their self-created tribe. For example, the shooter says, “We must ensure the existence of our people, and a future for white children.” Yet the reason he gives for not starting his own family is that “if we do not destroy the invaders first, our birthrates will mean nothing.”

As with many tribes in the past, the modern white nationalists find that waging warfare on outgroups is far more appealing than working to bring flourishing to one’s own tribe.

6. They are attracted to diverse form of terroristic activity.

Not every young ethno-nationalists will follow in the footsteps of Anders Breivik, Dylan Roof, and the New Zealand shooter in becoming mass murderers. But many thousands of extreme trolls will commit other forms of terroristic activity.

The use of racist, antisemitic, and white supremacist imagery and language intended to intimidate people has become so frequent that it hardly shocks us anymore. But even more sickening examples come from those who might not associate with ethno-nationalism but who engage in evil “for the lulz” (i.e., amusing themselves at another’s expense).

A particularly gruesome example from several years ago was a troll from Minnesota who sought out depressed people online, posing as a suicidal female nurse, pretended to sympathize, and offered instructions on how they could kill themselves. He would enter into fake suicide pacts with people and encourage them to kill themselves for “the thrill of the chase.”

For those who never travel outside the bounds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the reported behavior of extreme online forums may seem like the stuff of urban legends. But unlike moral panics from previous generations—such as the claims of Satanic ritual abuse of the 1980s—we should be truly frightened by the satanic influence on offer in the darkest reaches of the web.

Like pornography, trolling remains ubiquitous and just out of sight. And like pornography it has the ability to corrupt young, misguided souls who are looking for a sense of belonging and connection.

While we may not be able to put an end to the troll culture that fuels white nationalism, we can and should do more to reach those who may be tempted to come under its sway. We have believers who are willing to go to the ends of the earth to reach the lost tribes with the gospel. But who will go to the tribe of meme-making ethno-nationalists trolls and tell them about Jesus?

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