Narratives of Far-right Killers are Indistinguishable from Many on Social Media

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Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Supporters of far-right narratives are rarely original. It should not be surprising that people who are troubled by change, diversity, religious plurality and social liberalism are also often parrot-like regurgitators of simplistic notions about ‘us and them’, as well as blind followers of authoritarian manipulators.

If you search Twitter for terms that excite the far-right, such as ‘Tommy Robinson’, ‘Islam’, ‘white genocide’ and ‘immigrants’, you will see a dreary repetition of the same phrases, the same conspiracy theories and the same terms used to attack those who challenge them.

Some of this can be accounted for by the presence of bots that amplify far-right narratives. However, many are, sadly, real. And even the most extreme members of the movement adhere to the same patterns, in terms of linguistic and behavioural unoriginality. Their narratives are like words going through sticks of seaside rock. You can break the rock at any point and read the same simple message, in the jagged lumps of sickliness.

I’m not going to quote the semi-coherent rants of the man linked to the mass murders of worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Legal proceedings are active, which makes it unwise, and this is exactly what he would want. Like Anders Breivik, who the accused appears to have admired, the atrocity was designed not just to kill those he despised but to spread a ‘manifesto’ of hate and division.

This is an approach probably copied from Breivik, a far-right Norwegian terrorist, who murdered 77 people, including dozens at a left-wing youth camp, and injured 319 with a bomb and a shooting spree, to launch his vast rambling manifesto. The document calls for Europe-wide civil wars to try to turn back the clock to a mythical ‘golden age’ before feminism and multiculturalism. It also tells others how to plan similar attacks.

I am not going to link to Breivik’s manifesto or quote him here, but information in this article about him and his plots is derived from the manifesto and information that came out at trial, which had been reported widely. The Wikipedia page I linked above also has and links to reliable information.

If I say the manifesto of the Christchurch accused makes him seem like a ‘pound shop Breivik’ I am in no way suggesting that Breivik’s document was either well written or very coherent. I read all 1,515 pages when researching a book about threats to the veneer of civilisation. The manifesto was a deeply unpleasant read, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, as things stand, it looks like Christchurch was a copycat crime to launch an even more incoherent ‘manifesto’.

Breivik himself was strongly influenced by online material, and I suspect more could be done about those who influenced him. Breivik’s manifesto, 2083 — A European Declaration of Independence, was sent to 1,003 email accounts, including numerous far-right ‘activists’ in the UK, just before he began his attacks. Quite a lot of the writing appears to have been copied and pasted from far-right web pages and the manifesto of Ted Kaczynski, a US terrorist known as the ‘Unabomber’. The style of writing drifts accordingly.

By the time of the massacre, Breivik had built up 2,500 Facebook contacts. He wrote the manifesto in English to give it maximum influence among susceptible targets for his warped ideology. His call for a war against those regarded as enemies was clear and extremely specific, with three phases of a European civil war outlined to go on until 2083. In the document, he lists far-right groups across Europe, including the English Defence League, the British National Party and National Front, which he envisages as part of a network of militia that would rise up.

The genuine hope Breivik had that his cowardly crimes would help bring about war across Europe is chilling. As a former mental health professional, I also find it tragic to see how someone could turn the damage in his own formative relationships into a hatred for women in general, feminism, diversity and social progress. His hatred for women seems even greater than his hatred of Muslims. In the manifesto, masculinity is presented as heroic and suppressed while feminism is depicted as a danger to society, which is curious as his mother brought him up and his father wanted little to do with him.

After his attacks, there was a great deal of debate about Breivik’s mental state. After extensive assessment, he was deemed to not be mentally ill but instead have a narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. It is important to stress that psychopathy and sociopathy — types of antisocial personality disorder — are not regarded as mental illnesses but personality disorders.

The extent to which Breivik’s behaviour and damaged relationship with the world can be blamed on his childhood experiences could be debated indefinitely. Some personality disorder elements might be present from before birth, though how they manifest themselves can change over time and be influenced by external factors, including the narratives one is subjected to.

It is also important to state that most people with antisocial personality disorders do not kill, and, according to many modern experts, are more likely to be found in the corporate world than up on murder charges.

It could be that in different circumstances Breivik would have responded differently to life. Assessment and intervention by child psychiatry and social services may not ‘cure’ fundamental problems, such as certain personality disorder characteristics. But by changing the circumstances around a child, they can change the life trajectory and impact of an individual. A reliable diagnosis can also help any agencies that deal with the individual in the future to understand them and respond effectively.

Breivik’s plan was methodical and took several years to plan and prepare for before carrying it out. He spent years building up social media and email contacts with other far-right individuals and groups across Europe, the USA and beyond. While building up that network and sharing toxic narratives with them, he learned how to make bombs, on an isolated property obtained for that purpose.

In the build-up to his terror attacks, he also collected news organisations’ email addresses so that he could send his manifesto to them, as well as his far-right allies, just before the attacks started. Having spent years posting far-right narratives on Facebook to build up his network, he deleted his contacts and changed his output prior to the attack, due to worries about being flagged by the security services.

One might reasonably ask: “How can a far-right activist with such a damaged relationship with society manage to stay under the radar for so long, and not be marked out as high risk by the intelligence services and police?” The answer to that question is chilling — his narratives were no different to those of hundreds of thousands of other misogynists, Islamophobes, racists and conspiracy theorists we can see on social media every single day. Predicting which of them will get away from spreading hate on social media long enough to do what Breivik or British far-right killer Thomas Mair did is not easy.

If we block such people we can be accused of taking away their freedom of speech, as though freedom of expression is the same as the freedom to force everybody to listen to their drivel. If we engage with them, we are more likely to amplify their reach than eradicate their toxic ideas — in fact being challenged can, as in cults, reinforce their beliefs. We can report those who incite hatred, which is a crime in the UK, and sometimes Twitter will delete the account of repeat offenders. But what we can’t do is know which of the vast number peddling those views are going to be the next to brandish weapons and murder people. It is a grotesque game of bingo, with many ‘activists’ at any point ringing alarm bells.

So as things are, we see the same old dangerous narratives floating around our screens, knowing that behind any one of the accounts could be a killer. 30 years after the creation of the World Wide Web, this is where we are — puzzling over which online bigots could be murderous extremists.

I preferred the halcyon days of Twitter, when the trending list was dominated by people arguing over who is best out of One Direction and Justin Bieber, though even then Breivik was using the internet to build up his network. As are many far-right ‘activists’ at this moment.

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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