When I was a wide-eyed 19 year-old sophomore at the University of Hull in 2009, I had a close friend and housemate whom we shall call ‘Harry.’ Despite the wide cultural gap between this privileged Nigerian international student and the ‘third culture’ child of middle-class Chinese-Norwegian parents who spoke in an American accent, we bonded over our mutual love for girls, videogames, Chinese cuisine, internet culture and anime. Especially anime.
The trouble with Harry was that while my interest in internet culture was more of the “get into arguments with strangers on Facebook comment sections” type, he had an obsession with this obscure website called 4Chan. Harry was always on 4Chan getting into fights, joining DDOS attack teams and generally doing this thing he called shitposting. I found 4Chan and its culture weird and a bit repulsive because of its distinct whiff of racism and distilled teenage insecurity, so on this one thing we never saw eye to eye.
Ten years since my introduction to ‘Chan culture’, it has made its most public statement yet, with news that an Australian white supremacist who carried out a terror attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, livestreamed the attack on Facebook and posted advance notice about it on 8Chan, a sister website to 4Chan. His last few words before murdering at least 49 people were
Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.
“Vanilla Bigotry” or How to Groom Potential Terrorists
Felix Kjellberg, alias PewDiePie is not the name you would normally link to a terrorist attack or extremist behaviour of any kind because on the surface, he is pure vanilla. A university dropout turned YouTube sensation, Kjellberg makes millions of dollars annually in ad revenue from his heavily subscribed channel, which has hosted personalities like Elon Musk and Rick & Morty co-creator Justin Roiland.
To understand what a mass murderer and this guy could possibly have in common, it would help to put a few things in perspective. First of all, Kjellberg’s 89 million+ YouTube subscribers are overwhelmingly young, male and white. Starting out as an English-speaking in-play videogame commentator, he has morphed into a bona fide leader of a young, attentive and fiercely loyal online community the size of Germany.
This kind of reach and influence makes him the perfect tool to reach the demographic of socially awkward, academically average, disaffected young males who are disproportionately represented in extremist activity all around the world. His platform is especially desirable to extremists because social and technological change over the past few decades has made it unfeasible to recruit young men by proselytizing on street corners like the National Front in the UK or the KKK in the U.S. once did.
Unvarnished bigotry is no longer socially acceptable, and the preponderance of information available on the internet means it is no longer possible to put certain information out without being challenged. Western far right extremists and recruiters have been forced to change tactics, switching from definite statements like “I hate Jews and Blacks,” to faux ironic references to “shitskins” and “small hats” among others.
When challenged, they immediately label such comments as “ironic” and “parody,” in what has become a recurring tactic of the insurgent far right across the western world. Personalities like PewDiePie are crucial to this incremental and insidious whitewashing and normalisation of what the world would otherwise recognise as dangerous behaviour.
Bite-Sized Cruelty: PewDiePie’s Success and LOL Culture
The word “terrorism” is generally conflated with huge, visually spectacular events like the September 11 attacks in New York or the Pan Am flight bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. In reality, the dictionary definition of terrorism, i.e the use of terror to achieve a political goal does not specify how large or noticeable an event has to be to be classified as a terror attack.
In line with the growth of PewDiePie and other YouTube shock jock merchants like KSI, Chan culture has spawned an entire range of violent subcultures which have gone almost completely unnoticed because they were online.
Before a young man ever made the decision to walk into a mosque with loaded AR-15s and commit wholesale murder of men, women and children, it is very possible that his radicalisation process went something like this.
A bored young man checks YouTube to see what his favourite game streamer has uploaded today. Instead of a video about games, the creator has uploaded a “funny” video showing two Indian guys he found on Upwork holding up anti-semitic signs. The majority of the YouTube comment section agrees that the video is HILARIOUS, but only because it is “ironic.” What exact element of the video contains irony is never specified.
The video causes a controversy and YouTube drops the creator from an ad campaign, so the creator uploads a reaction video accusing YouTube of picking on him because he is white. YouTube wants to replace him with an Indian girl, and he’s not going to let them win, he says!
Incensed about the apparent unfairness of YouTube trying to deplatform someone for being white, our hero clicks on a video recommended by a one of the commenters under the video, and it opens him up to a new world dominated by conspiracy theories and “red pills.” The principal common knowledge in this new YouTube world is that a global network of Jews and Communists are secretly exterminating white people and replacing them with…everyone else.
From Radical to Terrorist
From Lauren Southern, our hero finds his way to Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Richard Spencer. He may then flip on the TV and see Tucker Carlson or Australian Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton repeating the same information almost word for word, giving the legitimacy of a cable news channel and a high ranking government official to what has until now been an internet conspiracy theory.
Now the young man’s education is complete. He knows that white farmers in South Africa are being slaughtered daily in their hundreds, with big-lipped African men ravaging their poor, defenceless wives and daughters. He knows that Jews, Marxists and cultural elites in Europe, Oceania and North America are replacing white people with Muslims through mass immigration.
He knows that all of this is happening and nobody is talking about it because his people are “asleep,” or unlike him they are not ready to take the “red pill” and face the truth about white genocide. He knows that he must either accept life as a “cuck” and do what the Jews and Marxists say, or fight back like a soldier and save his people from extermination at the hands of Muslims. He now knows what he must do.
“Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.”
This is Not About Whether You Like PewDiePie
Since the news broke, Twitter has been alight with fans of their favourite Swedish provocateur trying desperately to make the point that PewDiePie is not in any way complicit, and may even be a victim of “trolling.” Presumably, going by this line of thought, the chief concern on the mind of a terrorist about to commit mass murder would be “trolling” a YouTube star, and if that is the case, it deserves more attention than the actual execution of dozens of allegedly Brown and Muslim human beings.
In any case, all of this serves to miss the point spectacularly, because the question is not about whether Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg is “racist,” but rather what he enables and creates using his platform. The content of a person’s character is almost impossible to establish objectively, and doing so would serve no purpose anyway. For example, more than 70 years after his death, there is still a debate about whether Adolf Hitler was a “bad person,” when the correct answer is not “Yes” or “No”, but “who cares?” Such debates are notorious for expending useful energy arguing useless points.
What permanently changed the course of history for Europe, Africa and Asia in the mid-20th century was not who Hitler was inside or what he believed in. It was what he did with power – period. Similarly, the real issue with PewDiePie and other performative-shitpost merchants on YouTube and across social media is not whether or not they are good people, but what their platforms achieve – whether intentionally or not.
The fact is that PewDiePie is to Western right wing terror recruitment, what Codeine is to synthetic opioids and Heroin – a legal and “acceptable” gateway drug. Regardless of whatever offensive or dangerous right wing extremist tropes are normalised by PewDiePie, he can always count on his cheeky grin, rehearsed innocent-boy charm and a nation-sized online army to argue that he didn’t really mean it because he is not “that kind of person,” and everyone who complains is ignorant for not understanding his unique exposition of classical ironic Swedish humour.
Beneath the mask however, the ugliness never lies far way.
The Internet’s Chan Universe
4Chan and sister website 8Chan are offshoots of the Japanese message forum 2Channel or 2Chan, which achieved notoriety in May 2000 during the so-called Neomugicha incident. A 17 year-old 2Chan user hijacked a bus, killing one passenger and injuring two after posting an advance warning on 2Chan. In the following months, a rash of copycat attempts followed which were thankfully foiled by Japanese police.
As is often the case with the internet, some bright spark decided to export the Wild West philosophy of 2Chan to the English speaking world, birthing 4Chan and 8Chain among others. By the time Harry introduced me to 4Chan in 2009, I found it to be a curious kind of message board, focused neither on intellectual exchange like Reddit, nor personality boosting like Twitter.
Chan websites are image boards, which means that they are built primarily around pictures and not text. In terms of content, they are basically what happens when a racist 20th century minstrel show and a meme have a baby genetically spliced with hatred for women. These tacky-looking sites have millions of registered users, the majority of whom are young men located in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.
Cultural Regression one Meme at a Time
Harry was my best friend, so I tried to enjoy 4Chan the way he did. I never succeeded. Maybe it was the constant and overtly unironic use of the N-word. Maybe it was the constant need for one-upmanship to prove that one was not a “fag” or a “noob.” Maybe it was constant rape jokes and the very palpable hostility and rage toward women, encapsulated by the time when a member uploaded a photo of himself having intercourse with a female corpse that was missing everything from the torso up.
More likely than not, it was the effect I saw it have on Harry himself, as he slowly changed in real life from my best friend into a 4Chan username, culminating in his 2010 arrest for stalking and threatening his ex-girlfriend. Before my eyes, I saw one of my favourite people regress from a positive, outgoing, even-tempered young man into a paranoid, insecure, anxiety-ridden adrenaline junkie who was convinced that everyone else was some sort of supporting character in a videogame he was playing.
It could happen to a positive-minded, well-travelled Humanities student attending university in the UK. It is no major stretch to imagine this process being amplified in the case of an unspectacular young male anywhere in the western world, already raised on a diet of xenophobic Murdoch-controlled press, with a homogenous peer group consuming the exact same content online. Add in a few variables like military training and access to high capacity firearms, and you can take your pick of Branton Tarrant, Dylan Roof, Anders Breivik, or – god forbid – whoever comes next.
Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.
Reversing the Tide
The bad news is that the world has wasted a lot of time pretending to itself that tech-driven right wing radicalization is either non-existent or harmless. It is after all, only a bunch of Viking mythology, ancient European symbolism, hand signals and Pepe frog memes, so clearly it’s just internet culture fluff – nothing to be worried about. The good news is that hopefully, this misconception has been well and truly cleared up now.
In order to stop the next generation of young men in western societies from drowning in a sea of dangerous, reactionary ideology pushed on them by an obliging internet echo chamber, four important factors have to come together. First of all the tech companies that own the platforms used by terrorists and their recruiters need to take more responsibility and prioritize lives and human progress over advertising dollars.
This is easier said than done admittedly because YouTube for example, wants the ad revenue and also wants to push its “free speech” credentials. This allows peddlers of entry-level bigotry like PewDiePie to funnel new recruits to the more dangerous radicalizers, also hosted on YouTube. YouTube insists that removing, censoring or dictating content is contrary to the spirit of “free speech,” but this is transparent nonsense for one simple reason.
“Free speech” does not actually exist. If it did, child pornography would be more of a thing than it is. If “free speech” as it exists were actually some kind of unqualified and unregulated entity, in the aftermath of the shooting, YouTube would not have issued the following tweet:
Taking down videos of the shooting is clearly censorship of unacceptable material. If that can be done after the fact, it can also be done before. If it is wrong for a platform to enable millions of people watch innocents being executed by a terrorist, it is also wrong for that platform to enable millions of people to watch and be radicalized by the material that created the terrorist.
Parents, Education and Media
Second, parents need to take an active interest in the content that their kids consume online. It would be a grave mistake to think that you can leave the internet to raise your children. Even if they don’t end up livestreaming themselves shooting up a mosque, they can seriously hurt themselves if left unchecked within the Chan world and what passes for humor therein.
Third, school syllabi in the western world need to stop glossing over or modifying history to suit a nationalist agenda. Branton Tarrant for example, could have benefitted from a deep understanding of his family’s Australian origins if what he wrote in his manifesto is anything to go by.
For too long, Western basic and secondary education has failed to teach a holistic version of history, out of a misguided sense of shame or patriotism. Kids thus end up indoctrinated with what amounts to a white supremacist perspective on the world. This needs to end immediately. Kids who are given a proper understanding of history regarding global European imperialism and invasion are much less likely to grow up with a sense of entitled victimhood when they see immigrants living their lives.
Finally, the mainstream media has to own its role in pushing jingoistic, unhelpful narratives that divide western populations into “us” and “them.” It needs to understand that placing dirty labels on entire groups of people such as “terrorist” with “muslim” is not a victimless crime. Not anymore, at least. The world has seen what happens when extremist recruitment funnels like PewDiePie work in tandem with unregulated internet echo chambers, and the results are not pretty.
Now for once, let’s actually do something about it.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of, nor should they be attributed to, CCN.com.