We have better tools than ever to start a race war. The power of the rifle that Brenton Tarrant brought to two Christchurch mosques in March was greatly magnified by the Go Pro strapped to its barrel and an easy-to-use video streaming platform.
The same tools that have made it possible for small-time entrepreneurs to take on big brands have made it possible for small-time terrorists to steer global events.
There are practical reasons for restricting terrorist propaganda, but we need to make sure we don’t do more harm than good.
One of the particular horrors of terrorism is that the victims don’t matter. Tarrant didn’t care who he killed. It was nothing personal. His goal was to recruit for a race war, to fight what he sees as “the Great Replacement”, the idea that Muslim immigration will lead to a “white genocide.”
The first goal of the live-streamed video and the manifesto is to inspire copycat attacks.
The Christchurch mosque attacks were pure propaganda, designed for the information age. The streaming-video was designed to look like a first-person shooter video game. The manifesto was full of tactics, suggested targets, and calls to violence, all packaged alongside chat room in-jokes, crafted to appeal to the young men who inhabit fringe message boards.
Modern terrorists are less likely to form into large organisations, which are vulnerable to attack from security forces. They tend to form loose networks with informal communications.
Small groups and individuals don’t share information through formal channels but experiment in public and copy what works. Counterterrorism advisor John Robb calls this “stigmergy,” after the biological term that describes how insects like ants communicate by leaving chemical trails behind them. The recent fad for driving trucks through crowds is an example of stigmergic learning by terrorists.
The Chief Censor’s classification of the killer’s video and manifesto, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to repeat the Christchurch shooter’s name, and the New Zealand media agreement on how to cover his trial are attempts to slow down the transmission of information in this way, to weaken the scent of the stigmergic trail.
The biggest obstacle to a race war is that the vast majority of people don’t want one and can’t be radicalised by white supremacist conspiracy theories or internet memes. The second path to radicalisation is via revenge. The mosque shootings will almost certainly spur revenge attacks, which could draw more people into the fight.
In an information war there are good, practical reasons for restricting terrorist propaganda. However, in the rush to prevent repeat performances, we risk doing more harm than good.
Springing the Trap
Osama bin Laden’s big goal for the 9/11 attacks was to provoke an American over-reaction and thus radicalise Muslims for the fight. Right on cue, America launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have been running for twenty years, costing trillions of dollars, with no end or success in sight. At the same time, it introduced police state levels of domestic surveillance. Almost all of the damage to America from 9/11, thousands dead, freedoms lost, and trillions spent, has been self-inflicted.
The Christchurch attacks, in contrast to 9/11, were not designed to provoke an over-the-top military response. They were designed to provoke an over-reaction in the information war. The information warfare version of bombing weddings in Afghan villages is the censorship, shaming, and deplatforming of good faith participants in political debate.
The Helen Clark Foundation released its Anti-social Media report in mid-May in response to the mosque attacks. It recommends regulation of social media companies, toughening up hate speech laws, and expanding surveillance of “far right” groups by the intelligence services. While this is not a government policy document, Prime Minister Ardern is a protégé of former-Prime Minister Clark and the eventual policy will probably look a lot like this report.
Over-reach is almost certain, based on the language of the report. It consistently calls for suppression of “terrorist and other harmful content” and “terrorist and extremist content.” While there’s undoubtedly huge public support for the suppression of terrorist recruiting ads, there’s a lot more being smuggled in there. “Harmful” and “extremist” are slippery words that could easily be used to crack down on legitimate political speech.
Helen Clark has tried to crack down on “far right” political speech before. As Prime Minister in 2007, she changed election funding laws to prevent a re-run of an advertising campaign against her government run by the Exclusive Brethren church. Are the Exclusive Brethren “extremist”? They’re certainly not mainstream.
Much of the angst about social media predates Christchurch and stems from elections that have gone the wrong way. The Digital Threats to Democracy report, released at about the same time as Anti-social Media, calls for many of the same measures and also asks us to “look beyond immediate concerns about violent extremism” and consider social media’s “growing, and increasingly negative, impact on our democracy,” going on to say that “the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum raise significant concerns.”
Digital Threats extends its worries about “extreme views” to “strong views” and the threats list contains not just hate speech but trolling, misinformation, distrust, and “emotive information.” That’s a lot to regulate.
Legislative Threats to Democracy
Knee-jerk censorship risks pushing us towards a police state while doing nothing to prevent terrorism. There’s a danger that the pretext of terrorism will be used to smuggle in political speech controls. The very act of censorship risks radicalising some of the people it silences. Any dramatic increase in censorship, especially of voices on the right, risks playing into Tarrant’s recruitment goals.
New speech laws will draw a line between “us” and “them” – those who want to be part of civil society and those who would tear it down. Laws that over-reach and over-regulate will put too many people into the “them” camp.
We should be careful not to do the terrorists’ dirty work. We mustn’t do ourselves more damage than has already been done.
 Tarrant’s manifesto is classified as objectionable in New Zealand and possession of it carries a 10-year jail term. Any discussion of his goals that might be answered by that document is hearsay from third-party sources. Some details have been collected at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christchurch_mosque_shootings#Manifesto (retrieved 15th May 2019) and at the Classification Office link below.
 (Robb, 2007), p123
 https://www.classificationoffice.govt.nz/news/latest-news/christchurch-attacks-press-releases/ (retrieved 15th May 2019)
 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111403410/pm-jacinda-ardern-promises-to-never-speak-alleged-christchurch-shooters-name (retrieved 15th May 2019)
 https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/media-companies-agree-guidelines-covering-trial-alleged-christchurch-gunman (retrieved 15th May 2019)
 https://www.patreon.com/posts/25435086 (retrieved 14th May 2019)
 https://www.helenclark.foundation/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/thcf-social-media-report-min.pdf (retrieved 14th May 2019)
 http://www.nickyhager.info/the-hollow-men-chapter-1-the-path-of-principle/ (retrieved 15th May 2019)
 https://www.digitaldemocracy.nz/ (retrieved 8th May 2019)
Robb, J. (2007). Brave New War. Hoboken: Wiley.