It begins with humor. The alt-right’s jokes, a teenage friend assures me, are genuinely funny: They ridicule the pomposities of “mainstream” culture, laugh at political correctness and create ridiculous memes mocking everything, including themselves. And once you’ve laughed at the jokes, there is a whole amusing, darkly ironic, alternative world out there, only a couple of clicks away.
There are the YouTubers such as PewDiePie, the Swedish gamer and vlogger who has shown Nazi videos while metaphorically arching his eyebrows. Viewers are meant to get that it’s a joke: “I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel,” he has said. There are discussion boards and chat groups. You can start with Reddit or the comment sections of Breitbart, where many of the white supremacist references are coded or disguised. If that begins to seem tame, there is 4chan or 8chan or gab.com, where the conversation is much more open.
Eventually, you can wind up living in a world in which the vilest forms of racism and hatred seem absolutely normal, in which mass murder is amusing and compassion is for the weak-minded. You can even wind up reading the Daily Stormer, which gets its name from the Nazi Der Sturmer , also once known for its “humorous” caricatures and cartoons. On Friday morning, the Daily Stormer’s home page marked the mass murder carried out at mosques in New Zealand with a long rant making fun of the anticipated “mainstream” reaction: “No one cares about this, and if you are pretending you or other people care about it, you’re simply lying.”
Unquestionably, the alleged New Zealand shooter had been radicalized by this weird world in which thick layers of irony cover up a brutal reality. He belonged to it; he was speaking to it; he was performing for it. He announced the attack on 8chan and made a video of himself shooting, putting a camera on his head, which was live-streamed to Facebook, so that his supporters could cheer him on in real time, and spread it on YouTube afterward. He also wrote a manifesto, posted to Twitter and Facebook, which seems to have been designed to amuse the denizens of the darkest parts of the online world.
He claimed, for example, that he had been influenced by Candace Owens, the black “conservative” activist who is probably most notorious for saying that Adolf Hitler was “OK” before he tried to “globalize.” “Her own views,” he wrote, “helped push me further and further into the belief of violence over meekness.” Maybe this is true. Or maybe, as the context seems to indicate, these comments were an elaborate game, designed to send journalists scurrying off to write about Owens. The same may have been true of his references to President Trump and others. “Remember lads,” he can be heard saying on the video he made of the massacre, “subscribe to PewDiePie” — meaning subscribe to the Swedish vlogger on YouTube.
Robert Evans, of bellingcat.com, has written that the shooter may or may not have been sincere about any of these references, but the point was to create conflict. He hopes “his massacre will spark further attempts at gun control in the United States, which he believes will lead to gun confiscation and a civil war” — a war that would end with the destruction of the diverse society he hates.
The shooter was anticipating the reaction and trying to shape it. He was also trying to amuse, enthrall and inspire his community. In this sense, white supremacist radicalism, whether aimed at Muslims in New Zealand or Jews in Pittsburgh, differs very little from Islamist radicalism, much of which also happens online. Participants are lured in slowly but soon feel part of a strong alternative, international community, one that has its own language, its own symbolism, its own set of grievances. Its members come to hate the “normal” world, with its virtues of democracy and tolerance, and some of them begin plotting to use violence to bring it down.
There is a difference, though, in how they have been treated. Since 2001, governments around the world have approached online Islamist radicalism with grim seriousness, blocking its financial sources, searching out potential terrorists, working with Internet platforms to stop its spread. By contrast, we have yet to treat white supremacism with anything like the same kind of vigor. Many hours after the New Zealand shooting, it was still ridiculously easy to find the video online. There are few special government programs to fight the milder forms of this violent ideology, and relatively little time has been devoted to thinking about it. The U.S. president has not taken a stand against it; an Australian politician, in the wake of the attack, even seemed to endorse it.
Both radicalisms kill. But while we dither, the death toll — in Norway, South Carolina, Britain — continues to rise. And the alternate world continues to tell jokes, make memes — and draw people in.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.