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CASTELLI: Tragedy is tipping point of dark inhumane internet humor

Opinion Column: Coservative Across The Aisle

On March 15, Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, let loose on Christchurch and killed 50 Muslim worshippers and injured dozens of others. Besides being New Zealand’s most deadly mass shooting in its history, what makes it noteworthy is the method in which news of it was spread: through Facebook livestream

The video was allegedly viewed 4,000 times and spread to other social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Reddit before Facebook executives removed it nearly 30 minutes later. Alongside the New Zealand government, social media companies have cracked down hard on duplicates spread across the internet. It is now nearly impossible to find a copy of the full livestream online unless it was saved onto your hard drive.

To call this tragedy a disgusting and vile waste of human life would not do it justice. As the dust settles, our generation as purveyors of internet culture are encouraged — if not obligated — to examine the way we use and abuse it.

Is this crime the fault of the internet and its millions of users? No, and I think that would be unjust to pin the horrific act of the lone gunman on those who peruse the internet and like some off-color memes. But what cannot be denied is how the internet acts as a catalyst for extremist ideologies to be not only easily accessible but portrayed in a humorous and relaxed way.

Irony and its many layers are the internet’s way of communicating and expressing humor. Originally, those who used the internet tended to be those who were computer-savvy and those who were ostracized for their interests. By ostracized, I do not necessarily mean those whose beliefs and ideologies were seen as offensive or crude — although I do not doubt that the birth of the internet attracted these sorts — but those with niche interests, such as comic books or video games. 

Memes, then, were a sort of way that people from these communities to communicate with one another. Most early memes required context of the medium it was used in due to the fact it was often referenced out of context. As memes became more prolific, they became more meta because they became their own medium. Irony has become a part of internet culture as a way of joking around with others, and users up the ante in order to make their jokes stick.

But, this irony has spiraled downward into something called Poe’s Law. Originally coined by a user named Nathan Poe on christianforums.com, it states that “it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.” It feeds into the idea of anonymity — that because each user’s identity is masked, the incentive for saying something outrageously offensive and outlandish is increased due to the lack of repercussions. Nobody knows your true intentions, so why not go wild? 

This type of humor is pervasive on forum sites like 4chan and 8chan where users, always anonymous, spew obscenities. For some users, their crass behavior is just edgy humor. For others, though, they are speaking their mind without knowing others are joking.

Tarrant’s manifesto is filled to the brim with this internet irony. He cites his inspiration for his beliefs of ethno-nationalism, among other pop culture and internet memes, on "Spyro: Year of the Dragon" and "Fortnite," both popular video games. These examples, seemingly odd and inconsequential, are meant to troll and is a succinct example of this type of humor. The purpose for littering the manifesto with this is twofold. 

He states quite bluntly that he hopes his actions “(drive) political and social discourse, creating the atmosphere or (sic) fear and change that is required.” Yet, there is an unconscious and insidious intention: to confuse and trick journalists by giving them exactly what they want to hear. 

There are several sections in the manifesto written in a question-and-answer format, dedicated to feeding into preconceived notions and suspicions that journalists had about him before all of the information was revealed. He wanted to control his narrative by providing clean and easy-to-access information for journalists to publish and create discord. His vile words and actions on March 15 are the physical manifestation of Poe’s Law, a young man was heavily exposed to white nationalist ideologies — ones where truth and irony meet at a gray area — and took it as truth and put his erroneous beliefs into action. 

Can we stop this radicalization from occurring? Yes, although the solution should not be greater oversight and censorship over the internet, as it makes those ideas more tantalizing to those curious. It is through civil dialogue and education that we are able to curb this extremism. 

Giana Castelli is a School of Arts and Sciences junior  majoring in political science. Her column, "Conservative Across the  Aisle," runs on alternate Fridays.


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