The Power Of Rhetoric

[CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of hate and mass murder.]

I thought I knew why he shouted “subscribe to PewDiePie!” before opening fire. For years, PewDiePie has occasionally spouted off hateful rhetoric, and when he gets called out on it defends himself by saying he was ignorant or just making a joke. The shooter was a fan, and wanted others to join PewDiePie’s community.

The Great Subscriber War, also known as the Subscribe to PewDiePie movement, refers to an ongoing campaign to keep PewDiePie as the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube. The campaign started in 2018 after it was predicted that T-Series, a channel which produces Bollywood music videos, would soon surpass PewDiePie. As of December 7th, 2018, the campaign has been successful at keeping PewDiePie the most popular channel on YouTube.

Turns out I was wrong. Some people even exploited unsecured printers to spread the word, it was that much of a meme within their subculture.

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking “so what, ironic bigotry is still bigotry.” That is true, but just like me you were missing the bigger picture.

He goes on to repeat, at length, the Navy SEAL Copypasta, a humorous meme that originated on 4chan circa 2010. The whole manifesto is dotted with little bits like that. They are meant to distract attention from his more honest points, and to draw the attention of his real intended audience.

Step back a bit: why do people join online hate groups? From my experience within the atheist/skeptic community, I gathered that the people in those groups are looking for a community that supports and cares for them. They get to talk about their problems and worries without fear of judgement, because these places create an environment of “edgelord nihlism.” The only pleasures we get from life come from each other, the only truth we know is that we’re too ignorant to know the truth. That person saying Hitler was an OK guy? You don’t know they actually believe that, but you can be sure someone out there is convinced they’re sincere. You know the truth, that other person doesn’t, and that makes you superior even if you don’t feel that way.

… 4chan users were deeply sensitive and guarded. They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, “forever alone”) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other words — that you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was “for the lulz” (lols). Like [the] (by comparison the tame and sophisticated precursor) “Something Awful” board that spawned it, 4chan defined itself by being insensitive to suffering in that way only people who have never really suffered can — that is to say, young people, mostly young men, protected by a cloak of anonymity. The accepted standard was a sort of libertarian “free speech” banner, in which isolated man-boys asserted their right to do or say anything no matter someone else’s feelings. This meant generally posting pornography, swastikas, racial slurs, and content that reveled in harm to other people.

This environment gives cover for anyone to shared their bigoted, uninformed opinions and get cheered for doing so. You get love and support, and in return you only have to say you hate the right people and that everyone in the group is joking. Anonymity and plausible deniability will shield you from any consequences.

You know the rest: ironic bigotry gradually morphs into actual bigotry, in a positive feedback loop that spreads more hatred around. What might be less obvious is the negative feedback side of things; if it’s so easy to fall into bigotry, how can anyone fall out of it?

The design of these communities makes them superficial. The flip-side of enforcing anonymity is that nobody truly knows who you are, or will miss you when you are gone. The flip-side of arguing everyone is insincere is that your sincere beliefs won’t be taken seriously, your passion project will get laughed off if it isn’t sufficiently outrageous. All the quirks that make you an individual have to be smashed flat if you’re going to remain in the group.

But there’s a loophole: the crowd may be anonymous, but who they talk about is not. No-one may know you, but everyone there knows Hitler and says he was cool. Become something these groups can use to shock other people with, and they’ll gladly chant your real name.

The author does not claim membership to any specific far-right group, and also denies being a Neo-Nazi. Instead, he expresses a sort of allegiance- and ideological sympathy, to several other mass shooters, including Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik. He claims to have been in contact with Breivik, and that the Norwegian mass-shooter’s manifesto was his “true inspiration”.

Breivik’s manifesto has provided inspiration to a number of far-right killers and would-be killers, most recently Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson. The author repeatedly states his hope that his spree, and his manifesto, inspires other people to kill.

And that brings us back to 8chan. In addition to sewing discord and creating confusion, the Christchurch shooter’s repeated references to memes and in-jokes were him playing to this very specific crowd. […]

And how did they respond to this? Over and over again, through page after page of posts, anons celebrated this mass murder by one of their own. Most of the (very few) negative remarks found in the thread are from people, like one of the above posters, who fear this spree will mark “the end of 8pol”. The shooter’s frequent use of in-jokes and memes played extremely well with this crowd.

Most of these far-right shooters post a manifesto trying to convert most other people to their cause. That isn’t terribly effective, as few people agree with them. This guy instead decided to narrow-cast. His manifesto kept bringing up Donald Trump and the US’s second amendment, even though he was a New Zealander Australian. By invoking a lot of memes unknown outside the US edgelord community, he was targeting his rhetoric towards 8chan and similar sites. The message was simple: commit an atrocity, and you too will rise above the crowd to become an object of worship. Rather than try and create a broad populist movement, this guy was telling a crowd already prone to violence to commit massacres in his name.

Before beginning his bloody spree, the Christchurch shooter- presumably the same person who wrote the manifesto- announced his intentions to 8chan’s /pol/ board. He opened by saying that it is “time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort”. […]

The shooter seems to have achieved his goal of providing the anons of 8chan with lulz, and with inspiration. One user hailed him as “the next Breivik”. And before much more than an hour had passed, there were already calls for other anons to follow in his bloody footsteps.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer.


… No, I can’t stop there. What can we do to cool things down?

Germans have a saying: if one Nazi sits at a table of ten and starts up a friendly conversation, there are eleven Nazis at that table. They recognise that rubbing shoulders with bigots makes you no different from them, and used a variety of social and regulatory means to restrict those conversations. That worked well, until the last few decades, but Gab’s history is prime evidence that social pressure can still be effective in the internet age.

By talking about how these hate groups form and grow, we make them less likely to start. By enacting laws and customs that restrict hate speech, we can slow its spread and give more time for social pressure to take effect. This is why Canada and Europe have hate speech laws, albeit imperfect ones, and why USians should consider lobbying for a set of their own. Eliminating hate isn’t possible, and combating it is difficult, but we can make progress on it.

We really have no choice, lives are on the line.