The Killing Joke: Trolling, Online Culture and the Christchurch Massacre
It’s tough not to get de-sensitized to the never-ending gauntlet of mass shootings in the United States and abroad. But the hate-fueled massacre of Muslims in New Zealand stood out for its horrific body count and its Trumpian overtones and for some other reasons as well.
The more I read about the shooting, which was live-streamed on social media, the less it seemed like a typical massacre and the more it seemed like an elaborate, exceedingly dark internet prank, a killing joke, as it were, with a bloody, corpse-strewn punchline that didn’t seem to make sense to anyone but the deranged mass murderer carrying it out.
It seems surreal and absurd that someone carrying out a massacre that would take the lives of dozens and be instant, massive international news would encourage people to subscribe to the Youtube channel of a video game dude who calls himself PewDiePie, regardless of the controversial Swede’s famous flirtations with anti-Semitism and far-right wing politics.
The murderer singling out Candace Owens, who rose to toxic fame when Kanye West publicly pronounced her his personal political guru similarly felt like a bizarre internet commenter troll move more than a genuine expression of regard for her as a political thinker. After all, even someone willing to risk his life to kill dozens of people he saw as the enemy has to be cognizant that being directly associated with bigotry-fueled mass murder can’t do much for someone’s popularity or legitimacy.
Owens’ response similarly embodied the bottomless ugliness of the internet. In a characteristic bit of terrible judgment, she straight up LOLd at the idea that her hate-filled writing could have inspired the New Zealand killer. Actually, she double-LOLd in a single tweet reading “LOL! FACT: I’ve never created any content espousing my views on the 2nd Amendment or Islam. The Left pretending that I inspired a mosque massacre in…New Zealand because I believe black America can do it without government hand outs is the reachiest reach of all reaches.!! LOL!”
I should probably point out that there is a “crying with laughter” emoji to accompany the Tweet about the aftermath of a mass shooting, along with the multiple LOLs and many, many exclamation points. That’s roughly two more LOLs and one emoji more than is proper for a tweet about people dying horrible deaths.
The thing that makes the internet just barely tolerable is that it’s just the internet, not the real world. It’s a place for posturing and role-playing, for trolling and “owning the Libs.” It’s a nightmare realm where people can hide behind personas and fake names and avatars of eagles and American flags that tell you everything you need to know about who they are and how they see the world. The internet and particularly nasty places like 4Chan are full of laptop tough guys, fierce ideologues who fight constant political street battles online yet are meek as kittens in real life.
The idea that trolls might feel empowered by massacres like these to convert their poisonous words and hateful philosophies into bloody, concrete action is almost too horrifying to contemplate. But people feel desperate and afraid these days and desperate, terrified people do terrible things, like shoot up mosques out of a Fear of a Muslim Planet.
I’ve long derived comfort from the understanding that while people might huff and puff and bluster and write hateful, hateful words about minorities and women and immigrants and the LGTBQ community online, their words are just words, empty, empty, wasted, meaningless words. With the Christchurch massacre, however, it feels like someone is putting those horrible, horrible words into action.
The thing about trolls is that they are, almost by nature, insincere. They aren’t out there genuinely expressing their beliefs. Instead, they’re adopting extreme and obnoxious attitudes they don’t actually hold as a way of antagonizing people on the other side but on their own side as well, of stirring up confusion and trouble. Trolling sometimes has a political or practical component but much of the time the object is just to annoy.
The troll is an online creature that lacks conviction, that pretends to be someone they’re not to get a rise out of people.
Yet the perversely troll-like figure behind the bloodshed was obviously invested enough in the rhetoric he was spouting to risk spending the rest of his life in prison.
The Christchurch massacre felt like it was a matter of the darkest, ugliest aspects of the internet becoming sentient and wracking up a body count. Perhaps developments like this shouldn’t be that surprising considering the role the internet has played in spreading Alt-Right and racist ideas and winning soldiers for the struggle who increasingly seem willing to do anything for the cause, no matter how ugly or seemingly wrong.
Real life is terrible enough as it is. We cannot allow the ugliness and rancor of the internet to further infect our offline discourse. Let’s at least try to limit the awful anti-culture of the internet’s ugliest, most callous and hateful places to the online sphere because when ugly words lead to even uglier actions everybody loses and the world becomes an even more brutal, even more hopelessly divided place.
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