Even the language used to describe the attack before the fact describes it as an act of activism on the internet. In an article on 8chan, the shooting was described as "post real life stress". An image was titled "Screw Your Optical," referring to a line posted by the accused man in the shooting at the Pittsburgh Synagogue, which later became a kind of slogan among neo-Nazis. And the manifesto – a verbose mix of white nationalist blanket, fascist statements and references to obscure jokes on the Internet – seems to have been written at the bottom of an algorithmic rabbit terrier.
It would be unfair to blame the Internet for that. The patterns are complex, the lives are complicated and we do not yet know all the details of the shoot. Anti-Muslim violence is not an online phenomenon and white nationalist hatred has long preceded 4Chan and Reddit.
But we know that designing internet platforms can create and reinforce extremist beliefs. Their recommendation algorithms often lead users to more advanced content, a loop that allows more time for the application and generates more advertising revenue for the company. Their policies on hate speech are weakly applied. And their practices to remove graphic videos – like those that circulated on social media for hours after the filming of Christchurch, despite corporate attempts to suppress them – are at best inconsistent.
We also know that many recent acts of violence committed offline are branded Internet. Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 people and wounded six others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was an avid user of Gab, a social media platform popular with extremists. Cesar Sayoc, accused of sending explosives to prominent critics of President Trump last year, was plunged into a clutter of right-wing Facebook and Twitter memoirs.
People used to conceive of "extremism online" as distinct from the extremism that took shape in the physical world. On the contrary, racism and fanaticism on Internet bulletin boards seemed a little less dangerous than the prospect of Ku Klux Klan demonstrations or skinhead gatherings.
Today, online extremism is only a regular extremism on steroids. There is no offline equivalent of the experience of being algorithmically oriented towards a strident version of your existing beliefs, or of having an invisible hand guiding you video games to neo-Nazism. The Internet is now the place where the seeds of extremism are planted and watered, where the platform's incentives guide the creators to the ideological poles and where people with hateful and violent convictions can meet and feed themselves. .
So, the pattern continues. People master the culture of online extremism perfectly, they make and consume edged memes, they regroup and harden. And from time to time, one of them bursts.