Stephen Daisley Stephen Daisley

The new banality of evil

The terrorist’s radicalisation appears to have been entirely digital

‘Remember, lads: Subscribe to PewDiePie.’ With these words, the killer began broadcasting his slaughter of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, live on the internet — and a new form of terrorism was born.

For those unfamiliar with internet subculture, PewDiePie is a Brighton-based videogames blogger whose YouTube channel, the largest in the world, is known for its politically incorrect humour. His crown is about to be snatched by T-Series, a Bollywood music channel. The rivalry has sparked the ‘War against T-Series’ — online gamers all speak like semi-ironic Dr Strangeloves — in which PewDiePie’s ‘Bro Army’ of adolescent fanboys pull off stunts of varying taste and legality to win their idol more subscribers.

The Christchurch killer was framing his massacre like another light-hearted stunt, tapping into PewDiePie’s 90 million subscribers to maximise the audience for his message. That mass murder could be carried out as a comedy routine is too gruesome to imagine but the terrorist, in his grimly referential style if not his crimes, reveals himself to be a product of that pungent culture of trolling, banter, lad irony and vaunting cynicism that defines life online.

The 20th century saw the world confront what Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem called the banality of evil. The 21st century is introducing us to an evil that is performative and attuned to the language of internet memes and in-jokes. Even as the Christchurch gunman appeared in court charged with murder, he flashed the ‘OK’ gesture appropriated by the white nationalist web.

Some reporting of Friday’s terror attack comes perilously close to ‘the internet made him do it’ moral panic. But no causal link between violent popular culture and real-world brutality has ever been proved. Charles Manson was convinced lyrics from the White Album were alerting him to an impending race war, but that doesn’t mean the Beatles shared any culpability for his crimes.

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