The Christchurch Shooter and YouTube’s Radicalization Trap

YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms were instrumental in radicalizing the terrorist who killed 51 worshippers in a March 2019 attack on two New Zealand mosques, according to a new report from the country’s government. Online radicalization experts speaking with WIRED say that while platforms have cracked down on extremist content since then, the fundamental business models behind top social media sites still play a role in online radicalization.According to the report, released last night, the terrorist regularly watched extremist content online and donated to organizations like the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist site, and Stefan Molyneux’s far-right Freedomain Radio. He also gave directly to Austrian far-right activist Martin Sellner. “The individual claimed that he was not a frequent commenter on extreme right-wing sites and that YouTube was, for him, a far more significant source of information and inspiration,” the report says.
The terrorist’s interest in far-right YouTubers and edgy forums like 8chan is not a revelation. But until now, the details of his involvement with these online far-right organizations were not public. Over a year later, YouTube and other platforms have taken steps toward accepting responsibility for white supremacist content that propagates on their websites, including removing popular content creators and hiring thousands more moderators. Yet according to experts, until social media companies open the lid on their black-box policies and even algorithms, white supremacist propaganda will always be a few clicks away.
The Christchurch attacker’s pathway to radicalization was entirely unexceptional, say three experts speaking with WIRED who had reviewed the government report. He came from a broken home and from a young age was exposed to domestic violence, sickness, and suicide. He had unsupervised access to a computer, where he played online games and, at age 14, discovered the online forum 4chan. The report details how he expressed racist ideas at his school, and he was twice called in to speak with its anti-racism contact officer regarding anti-Semitism. The report describes him as somebody with “limited personal engagement,” which “left considerable scope for influence from extreme right-wing material, which he found on the internet and in books.” Aside from a couple of years working as a personal trainer, he had no consistent employment.
The terrorist’s mother told the Australian Federal Police that her concerns grew in early 2017. “She remembered him talking about how the Western world was coming to an end because Muslim migrants were coming back into Europe and would out-breed Europeans,” the report says. The terrorist’s friends and family provided narratives of his radicalization that are supported by his internet activity: shared links, donations, comments. While he was not a frequent poster on right-wing sites, he spent ample time in the extremist corners of YouTube.
A damning 2018 report by Stanford researcher and PhD candidate Becca Lewis describes the alternative media system on YouTube that fed young viewers far-right propaganda. This network of channels, which range from mainstream conservatives and libertarians to overt white nationalists, collaborated with each other, funneling viewers into increasingly extreme content streams. She points to Stefan Molyneux as an example. “He’s been shown time and time again to be an important vector point for people’s radicalization,” she says. “He claimed there were scientific differences between the races and promoted debunked pseudoscience. But because he wasn’t a self-identified or overt neo-Nazi, he became embraced by more mainstream people with more mainstream platforms.” YouTube removed Molyneux’s channel in June of this year.This “step-ladder of amplification” is in part a byproduct of the business model for YouTube creators, says Lewis. Revenue is directly tied to viewership, and exposure is currency. While these networks of creators played off each other’s fan bases, the drive to gain more viewers also incentivized them to post increasingly inflammatory and incendiary content. “One of the most disturbing things I found was not only evidence that audiences were getting radicalized, but also data that literally showed creators getting more radical in their content over time,” she says.