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The Efforts To Misdirect In Shooter's Screed


The man who has claimed responsibility for the attack in New Zealand on worshippers in two mosques was active online, posting a violent, hate-filled screed just before the attacks. Embedded in that document are references that those who follow online networks are very familiar with - a minefield of misdirection. The term for that is profane. And this is the radio, so we will call it scatposting. And our next guest says it's a tool the shooter used to both mask his intent and to make it spread. Robert Evans writes about this in a piece for Bellingcat, an online investigative platform. And he joins me now. Thanks for being with us.

ROBERT EVANS: Thanks for having me on.

BLOCK: You call this man's screed and his other provocative activity online - you call this booby traps. What do you mean by that?

EVANS: I mean his goal is to provoke and sow division between the right and the left. A lot of the comments that he put in his manifesto are, essentially, things that he knew would be picked up by the world media and cause the right and left to get to each other's throats. Like, that was part of the goal - is to get people angry and fighting.

BLOCK: And can you give me an example?

EVANS: Yeah. He brought up Candace Owens, who is a far-right YouTube personality and credited her for his radicalization, which is - cannot be true. He said that she was more extreme than him. This is a man who just shot dozens of people at a mosque. She's not more extreme than him.

BLOCK: He also mentions President Trump.

EVANS: He does mention President Trump. He says that he respects President Trump as a white nationalist figure but doesn't think that he's going to fix any of the problems that this guy sees. And, you know, that is probably partly calculated to increase that division between left and right.

BLOCK: Which brings up the question of how you know whether this actually reflects his intent and what he believes and how much is just chaff - just stuff he's throwing out there to misdirect.

EVANS: The stuff that he mentions only once, like Candace Owens - that is chaff. The stuff that he mentions repeatedly that is a deeper throughline, that's something you can assume he really, truly believes. So there are so many different in-jokes for these little online communities, like 8chan's /pol/ board, that it has to have been a significant part of his radicalization because that's the air he breathes. He's internalized so much of that.

BLOCK: And when you mention 8chan, what exactly is 8chan?

EVANS: Is essentially the darkest, dankest corner of the Internet. It is basically a neo-Nazi gathering place. And its primary purpose is to radicalize more people into eventual acts of violent, far-right terror.

BLOCK: When you think about what we're calling scatposting, there seem to be two things at play here. One would be sort of being a jerk in comments on a Twitter or Facebook post. And then there's this other, much darker stream, which is some sort of attempt to lure people in to radicalize them, I guess.

EVANS: Yeah. One of the way - and I want to make it clear, scatposting, the term that you're using, is not an explicitly fascist or neo-Nazi thing. It's a tactic anyone can use for any reason. You know, the goal is to cause disruption and distraction. And the goal is to, essentially, stop any kind of productive conversation from happening. And to an extent, this is a very old tactic on the far right. The founder of the American Nazi Party, the inventor of neo-Nazism and the first Holocaust denier, was a guy named George Lincoln Rockwell, who started the American Nazi Party in 1959 and was active throughout the '60s. Rockwell was a guy who did a lot of in-person what we would call trolling. He would show up at Martin Luther King's marches with very racist signs and people in, you know, racist costumes in an attempt to distract media attention from Martin Luther King Jr.'s rallies to what he was doing. And Rockwell's belief was very much that the only way to change people's minds was to get them in a heightened emotional state. So it didn't matter how you did that. If you could make them angry, you could influence them.

BLOCK: I wonder, Robert, even in having this discussion - you and I - whether we are sort of falling into the trap ourselves, whether this is exactly what people want - that they provoke. And they instigate discussion. And more and more people hear about them. And that's their goal.

EVANS: I mean, I think the thing that you have to avoid is - part of it is the emotional provocation. So it is important to talk about what these people's goals are because you - you know, they're killing people. You can't ignore them. You have to try to get better at spotting them ahead of time, shutting them down and stopping the spread of radicalization. So I try not to talk about the specifics of their ideology so much. Like, you shouldn't engage them in debates about immigration. But you should know where they're gathering on the Internet, what kind of terms that they are using and what their goal is with a manifesto like this. You can't just ignore them. We ignored them for too long. What we're looking at here is essentially a transnational fascist radicalizing movement. But it's an acephalous movement. It has no head. There's no structure. It's not like al-Qaida or ISIS, where there's a leadership cadre, where there's funding. It's just a lot of people with very similar ideas and a desire to do violence and inspire violence in others. And you have to understand what they're doing if you're going to stop it.

BLOCK: That's Robert Evans, who reports on online extremists. He's written about the New Zealand shooter's posts for the online investigative platform Bellingcat. Robert, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EVANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.