“HE WILL, when I speak, be nameless.” There was something magnificent about the response of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, to the outrageous murders in Christchurch. “I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.” Magnificent, compassionate, empathetic — yet steely. But was it right?
The murderer’s hero was another serial killer, the man who gunned down 77 young people at a youth camp in Norway in 2011. That individual, also a white supremacist, chillingly called his murderous spree his “book launch”. He was killing, he said, to be read. That was the only way to get sufficient international attention to prompt the media to publish extensive extracts from his extremist ramblings. Today, reporters and sociologists are doing the same thing with the 74-page “manifesto” of the latest murderer.
Yet it is important that well-informed academics do so, even if the popular press would do better to refuse to give it wider publicity. Experts report that the manifesto is full of internet memes and symbols, about Muslim plots and Jewish conspiracies, familiar to those who inhabit the far-Right reaches of the web. The killer had scrawled these Islamophobic buzzwords in white marker all over the guns that he used. They were even written on the spent cartridge cases that littered the site of his two atrocities.
We need to know if and how this kind of supremacist paranoia is being absorbed into our wider culture. Far-Right videos are now a staple on YouTube, which is a primary online news source for young people. The circulation of extremist political content on the internet’s most popular video platform is being peddled in attractive polished videos fronted by microcelebrities in the style of the young “influencers” who use video blogs to plug products for advertisers. And yet YouTube is rarely mentioned in calls for tighter regulation of Facebook and other social media.
How dangerous is all this? We know that political toxicity readily crosses barriers. The rising tide of populism around the world shows that the intemperate rhetoric of mainstream politicians, which we tolerate in the name of free speech, is often amplified among their supporters into the kind of hate speech which is not tolerable.
Trump, Brexit, and much else have coarsened our public and political discourse. Emotion, indignation, and anger seem routinely to outweigh the rational and factual in debate. The dog-whistle messages of extremist politicians contribute to a climate in which their supporters aggressively intimidate, harass, and bully opponents. Some cross the line from violent language into violent action.
Microsoft did an interesting experiment three years ago. The company created an artificial-intelligence bot designed to learn from interactions on Twitter by parroting others. In just 12 hours, the bot was, through its imitative algorithms, employing sexist and racist rhetoric, neo-Nazi sympathies, and even Holocaust denial.
What happened with a machine may be happening with human beings such as the Christchurch killer. We may not want to name him. But we do need to know him.