Fascists Among Us, Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre
The Christchurch terrorist attacks on March 14, 2019, was streamed live for 17 minutes. As each terrifying second and each blood-soaked minute ticked by, 51 people were killed and another 50 were injured in this heinous act. The perpetrator, Brenton Tarrant was sentenced only a few months ago and became the first person in New Zealand, where the attacks occurred, to be given a life sentence.
In his book, Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, Jeff Sparrow refuses to name the perpetrator and instead refers to him as Person X, partly as he notes “… because early readers reacted so strongly to the use of his name, suggesting … that it diminished his victims” and partly to denote that at any time another Person X might be out there, plotting and “… browsing a racist internet forum and counting ammunition.” The notion that “the Christchurch gunman emerged from a fascist subculture in which he’d previously been a minor and anonymous figure” forms the basis of the book, a timely warning during what appears to be the rise of fascism around the world.
The actions of Person X brought about an unprecedented effort from heads of State and online platform providers to adopt the Christchurch Call, a commitment to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. However, this has only been a recent initiative and the ease with which sharing content and connecting with individuals and groups who seek to create havoc within democratic societies, something Sparrow calls “fascist terrorism,” has increased dramatically and often without any restriction by using the internet to facilitate hate.
Sparrow takes care in setting out the turgid history of fascism so as to situate it within a contemporary context, moving from World War II to the terror attacks of 9/11 and Trump’s populism movement which has, since the time of Trump’s presidency, veered alarmingly towards rhetoric long associated with far-right movements. The chapter on Trump’s America, “Hail Trump: Fascist Memes” is taken from fascist leader Richard Spencer’s alt-right gathering of the National Policy Institute where Spencer shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Sparrow writes on the normalisation of fascist views across the internet, not just within right-wing sites such as Stormfront but more increasingly in Youtube, Facebook and Reddit.
Sparrow’s coverage of fascism invariably leads to an Australian connection and joins the dots on Person X’s involvement with content posted by noted Australian fascist groups United Patriot Front and True Blue Crew on social media platforms. Sparrow notes the popularity of alt-right podcasters called the “Dingoes” whom Tarrant had borrowed his avatar from and who had guests such as MP George Christensen and former Labor leader Mark Latham. Noted right-wing extremist Blair Cottrell, who had once called for the image of Hitler to be installed in classrooms and who has spent stints in-and-out of prison also features in the chapter that is comprehensive in providing insight into the alt-right in Australia.
A common thread throughout the book is the memeification of hate, whether it be advocating violence, posting about “the mosque prank” or the creation of a first-person shooter game that allows for people to play as Person X, Sparrow’s quest to understand it so as to denounce, and ultimately fight against such forces makes for a gripping read. This ties in well with Sparrow’s conclusion simply titled “Conclusion; Hope Against Hate” where he notes:
“The more we offer an alternative to environmental destruction – and to the society that unleashes such destruction – the more squalid and miserable fascism seems.”
As the rise of far-right populism occurs throughout the world and the influence of far-right and fascist movements grows over online platforms, the urgency with which we need to be able to identify and mitigate harmful actions is apparently constantly increasing. Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre is valuable reading for those interested in the deep reach of the far-right and fascist movement – and how we might stop it.