The Christchurch Terrorist Attack, the Far-Right, and Social Media: What can we Learn?By Dr. David Lowe Published 21 April, 2019
The Christchurch terrorist attack on the 15th March 2019 has attracted global shock and revulsion. It resulted in the death of 50 men, women, and children who were worshipping at a mosque. What makes this attack all the more shocking is that the gunman affixed a camera to himself and filmed the attack on a live Facebook feed. As he did so, followers around the world with the same extreme far-right views encouraged and cheered him on. As a result, a number of governments have criticised social media companies and are looking to bring these companies to account when they allow extremist and violent content to remain on their sites. Another surprising element was the degree of terrorism posed to state security by the extreme far-right. This article will discuss how this threat has increased over the last few years and how it, and the impact of the extreme far-right ideology, can be minimised. It also examines issues surrounding the difficulties in regulating and bringing social media companies to account in relation to posts on their sites which espouse and encourage extremism through the promotion of violence and hate.
Differentiating Between the Extreme Far-Right and the Far-Right
It is worth at this juncture to differentiate between the extreme far-right and the far-right. The former espouse the national socialist ideology; hence them being referred to as neo-Nazis. Apart from being overtly anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and intolerant of multicultural societies, they want to replace liberal democratic governments with authoritarian regimes. To achieve their aims, they glorify or encourage the use of violence. In comparison, most far-right groups and political parties do not glorify or promote violence in order to achieve their aims; rather they want to bring about change through political and judicial processes. Although some will argue that the term far-right includes both political parties and social movements that aim to mobilise public support, the far-right’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-EU narrative (all seemingly wrapped in a legitimate political cloak) can still be a catalyst in influencing individuals to carry out violence and hate crimes.
Examples of Global Violence inspired by the Extreme Far-Right and the Far-Right Narrative
The attack in Christchurch is not the first time we have witnessed the use of small arms weapon systems on those attending a place of worship by individuals influenced by the extreme far-right or far-right ideology. The following high-profile cases are illustrative.
Bissonnette, who was influenced by far-right ideology, was convicted in early 2019 for the murder of six Muslims he shot while attending a mosque in Quebec, Canada in 2017. He also grievously injured multiple others. While not officially aligned to any particular group and described as ‘very solitary and anti-social’, Bisonnette’s electronic footprint revealed an admiration for France’s Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen, overtly supporting Donald Trump and other sites containing far-right and nationalist material. The sentencing remarks of The Hon. Mr François Huot (JSC Québec) are worth restating:
Twenty-four months ago, Sunday, January 29, 2017, your actions resulted in six deaths of your kind. I say six of your kind because regardless of our race, our color, our origins, and our religious beliefs, we all belong to one same big family and we all share the same humanity. You have, moreover, seriously injured, again by firearm, five more men whose only crime was to be different from you. By your hate and by your racism, you have destroyed the lives of dozens and dozens of people, and have irretrievably ruined yours and that of your family members.”
(R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354: CanLII)
Osbourne was convicted of murder and attempted murder after killing a Muslim and seriously injuring other Muslims attending Finsbury Park Mosque in London after driving a van into worshippers leaving the mosque in June 2017. Osborne’s trial evidence showed he was accessing online material posted by both the extreme far-right and the far-right that influenced him to carry out the attack. The court saw this as a terrorist attack, hence his conviction being seen as a terrorist murder resulting in him receiving a life sentence and having to serve a minimum of 43 years.
Per The Hon Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb(QBD HCJ E&W):
The seriousness of your offences is exceptionally high and the just requirements of punishment and retribution mean that a very substantial minimum term must be imposed. But you did not succeed in committing multiple murders and so this is not one of those rare cases in which the sentence of last resort; a whole life order, is necessary”(R v Darren Osborne, 02 February 2018).
Roof, a white supremacist, was convicted of murdering nine black worshippers at a church in South Carolina when he entered the church and shot them. During the shooting, Dylan told the worshippers that black people were killing white people on the streets and raping white women every day. After being found guilty of murder at his trial, he received a federal death penalty and is currently in prison awaiting execution. The violence has ranged from hate crime as seen in the UK in June 2016 and the killing of Jo Cox the Member for Batley and Spen.
Mair was inspired by neo-Nazi ideology to commit assaults on Jews, Muslims, Asians, and gay men. Per the sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Wilkie:
The Jo Cox murder triggered the UK to proscribe as terrorist organisations (by order pursuant to section 3(6)(a) of the Terrorism Act 2000) three extreme far-right groups, the National Action in December 2016, Scottish Dawn and NS131 in September 2017. Although National Action’s website contained phrases such as “gas all traitors” and “fight for your country”, the initial tolerance of their narrative ceased due to the group’s promotion and encouragement of acts of terrorism following the murder of Jo Cox; resulting in the group being proscribed. In proscribing these groups the former UK Home Secretary, Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP (the Member for Hastings and Rye)said:
More recently, another extreme far-right group extolling the national socialist narrative has also morphed out of the National Action in the UK, calling itself the System Resistance Network (SRN). At the time of writing, it has only been in existence for a year. Allegedly formed by Alex Davies, the founder of National Action in Wales, the group’s initial activities were no more than the posting of stickers and posters around the UK, but it has recently encouraged its followers to carry out arson and vandalism in Welsh cities. The SRN also encourages its followers to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other national socialist literature and to ‘smash the establishment’. As a result, Welsh MPs are calling for SRN to be proscribed.
Examples of the violence carried out by National Action members includes the conviction of Zack Davies for the attempted murder of a Sikh, Dr Bhambra in June 2015. In an unprovoked attack, Davies attempted to decapitate him while shopping at a supermarket. During the attack, Davies shouted racist remarks and had in his possession a National Action flag. When asked by the police why he carried out the attack, Davies said it was because Dr Bhambra was Asian. Similarly, in January 2017 a 17-year-old teenager from Bradford and a member of National Action were convicted of making a pipe bomb. During his trial it was revealed that the teenager idolised Hitler and saw Thomas Mair as a hero, posting on Facebook, “There is one less race traitor in Britain thanks to this man.”
In September 2017 eleven suspected members of National Action were arrested for various terrorism offences, including allegedly being members of a proscribed organisation, funding terrorism, possession of terrorism-related material and documents, and preparation of terrorist acts. In June 2018, following another series of arrests in a separate investigation, Jack Renshaw pleaded guilty to being a member of a proscribed organisation (National Action) and plotting to murder UK politician Rosie Cooper (the Member for West Lancashire) and threatening to kill the police officer investigating him. Following the guilty verdict, it was reported that Renshaw had been convicted in early 2018 for two counts of stirring up racial hatred in speeches he made in 2016. In July 2018 Renshaw’s co-defendants, the National Action leaders Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson were found guilty of being members of a proscribed organisation. Current Home Secretary, The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (the Member for Bromsgrove), issued the following statement:
In November 2018 a British Army soldier, Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen, was convicted for being a member of National Action and for recruiting other soldiers to join the group in order to prepare for a race war. When arrested, Vehvilainen was found to be in possession of weapons and Nazi paraphernalia, and during his trial, there was evidence that he was planning to turn depopulated Welsh villages into national socialist communities.
Extreme Far-Right Violence in Europe
The UK is not the only European state where extreme far-right group violence has occurred; there are many examples in all European states. In Germany, the group National Socialist Underground existed for a number of years. Following a five year trial, Beate Zschape, a member of the National Socialist Underground received a life sentence for the murder of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek citizen, and a German police officer. Other German far-right groups still exist, including PEGIDA, which in English stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. PEGIDA ran a series of marches and at its peak, has attracted over 20,000 marchers in Dresden. Many PEGIDA marchers are also voters of the far-right political party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and have attracted international attention. After attending PEGIDA marches, UK far-right activist Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) tried to form a British version of PEGIDA.
A second example is the extreme far-right group Misanthropic Division, formed in Ukraine with other Misanthropic Division groups forming in other European states. One of the more disturbing aspects of this group is its Azov Battalion, which is an independent fighting unit in the Ukrainian civil war. In 2018 they were actively seeking foreign fighters from European states. This development appears to have been overlooked by the mainstream media and politicians as, arguably, there is no difference in the concern this raises to that when citizens travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.
An Analysis of Far-Right Groups in the United States of America
A variety of US far-right groups have existed for many years, including the Ku Klux Klan, its various affiliates, and a number of nationalist-inspired groups. There has been a revival in the membership of these groups as they too feel in recent times the political (and possibly social) the environment is conducive for them to air their views more publicly. It is estimated that more than 1,600 far-right groups exist in the US, albeit some with a small membership number where social media has been cited as playing a large part in promoting extreme far-right ideologies as they recruit people to their cause.
President Trump’s views expressed during the presidential campaign are seen as the reason for the increase in far-right activity in the US. This includes violence that came to international prominence on the 12th August 2017 when a car driven by James Fields Jr. was driven into a crowd protesting against the far-right in Charlottesville, Virginia. In December 2018 he was convicted of killing one person and wounding nineteen others. During the trial, Fields’ fascination with Nazism and adulation of Adolf Hitler was revealed. While many US Democrat and Republican politicians viewed the car attack as an act of domestic terrorism, it was not treated as such by US authorities.
Formed in 2013, Atomwaffen is a US neo-Nazi group that glorifies and advocates violence, including the overthrow of the US government through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Its website contains graphic videos of their activities, including the burning of the US constitution and flag, promoting a ‘race war’ and the group practicing military manoeuvres in a rural area. In 2017 Atomwaffen came to public prominence in the US when the group was linked to five murders and a bomb plot, including the murder of a 19-year-old Jewish gay Californian student, Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found in a public park in Orange County, California with twenty stab wounds. At the time of writing, Samul Woodward, who is accused of murdering Bernstein, has pleaded not guilty and the trial is proceeding. At least this extreme far-right inspired crime has been recognised by US authorities as a hate crime, and as such should Woodward be convicted of first-degree murder it could potentially result in him facing life imprisonment without parole. Even though Atomwaffen poses a threat to state security by openly promoting violence, hate and an overthrow of the US government and the establishment of an authoritarian regime, the US government has not banned the group as a domestic terrorist organisation.
The rise in populist right-wing politics has created a political and social environment making the extreme far-right and the far-right feel more comfortable in being more open in espousing their narrative and cause. While we have witnessed tragic acts of terrorist violence inspired by the Islamist narrative around the world that resulted in states working together to minimise the Islamist threat, similar action is needed in relation to the threat posed by the extreme far-right and the far-right. As the attack in Christchurch showed, governments should not underestimate the threat that the extreme far-right and the far-right has in influencing individuals to carry out acts of violence in their names.
While one tends to think of the far-right as being local, a degree of internationalisation has occurred as a result of current forms of electronic communication. The support takes the form of social media and website support and encouragement of extreme far-right and far-right activity between similar thinking individuals from different countries.
Regulating Social Media, Internet Companies, and Freedom of Expression
With the Christchurch attack being filmed on a live Facebook stream by the gunman, there have been calls for the regulation of social media and internet companies to minimise the posting of hate-inspired violence. This issue has been a cause for concern over a number of years. Companies such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have self-regulated standards regarding posts promoting hate and violence. For example, while consistently closing Islamic State accounts, Twitter closed the account of the UK far-right group, Britain First, including those of its leaders Paul Golding, Jeyda Fransen and those related to Tommy Robinson. While these companies have algorithms that help identify hate posts, many of these posts are not picked up by the algorithms. As such, human eyes are needed to identify these posts. Social media companies' reluctance to delete offensive posts or to close accounts centres around freedom of expression as these companies do not want to be seen as censoring free speech. Whereas posts related to criminal activity such as child sex abuse is relatively straight forward, getting the balance right between what is a legitimate political expression and that which is hate speech is not as straightforward as first appears. Comments that amount to hate speech will cross the parameters of what is acceptable in the right to freedom of expression, but one problem social media and internet companies face is a legislative inconsistency among states as to what amounts to hate crime.
The Canadian Approach to Controlling Hate Offences
In Canada, hate offences are contained in the Canadian Criminal Code. It includes, under section 318, the offence of advocating or promoting genocide (which carries a maximum imprisonment of five years), and under section 319 of the Code where, other than in private conversation, to communicate statements that wilfully promotes hatred to an identifiable group. In relation to other criminal offences, section 718(9) of the Canadian Criminal Code allows to be taken into consideration hate as an aggravating sentencing factor when the offence is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based upon race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or any similar factor.
In relation to hate crime per se, section 319 of the Criminal Code seems to be effective only against an individual and may be insufficiently strict or effective enough to deal with extreme far-right or far-right group activity. This could explain why Canadian Liberal MP, Irqa Khalid introduced a private member’s motion M-103 calling on Canada’s government to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systematic racism and religious discrimination. The motion was passed by 291 to 91 votes in an attempt to target all forms of far-right activity in order to quell the climate of hate and fear. Although it is a non-binding motion, it requires the Canadian Government to collect data on hate crime and conduct official assessments of affected communities. The Government has yet to present its findings. This could be because Motion M-103 is causing the Canadian Government consternation on two counts. One is how to define Islamophobia in a legal framework, and secondly, the motion would limit free speech in Canada and single out Islam for special treatment, thereby perhaps causing further resentment by non-Muslims.
The Australian Approach to Controlling Hate Offences
Freedom of expression is an issue that is also fettering the development of hate crime law in Australia. Added to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975 through the Race Hate Crime Act 1995, section 18C appears to be relatively ineffective to deal with the increase in far-right activity. This issue has resulted in many groups desiring that the Australian Government overhaul section 18C. Under section 18C it is unlawful, other than in private, to commit an act reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate a person or a group of people where the act is done because of race, colour, or national or ethnic origin of that person or some or all of the group of people. However, only a small amount of cases have made their way into the courts.
Legally treated as a civil wrong, one problem Australian race hate victims have is that hate speech has not been criminalised. This means individuals, not the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Australian Human Rights Commission must initiate complaints. As a result, most complaints do not proceed any further than lodgement, some are resolved by conciliation, with many complaints being withdrawn or abandoned. One explanation for this is rights and freedoms are common law rights and the Australian legislature does not want to be seen as restricting those rights. That said, there have been a few successful complaints lodged under section 18C. In Kanapathy v In de Braekt (no.4)  FCCA 1368, Kanapathy was a security guard at the Central Criminal Courts in Perth when a lawyer, de Braekt, racially abused Kanapathy after refusing a security check by calling him a “Singaporean Prick” and repeatedly swore at him. In de Braekt was ordered to pay Kanapathy AUS$ 12,500 and was struck off.
In Ejueyitsi v Commissioner of Police (Western Australia)  FMCA 12, Ejueyitsi was humiliated by a police officer in a public place by unlawfully handcuffing him and stripped his clothes off while saying to Ejueyitsi, “I am going to deal with you, you bloody African”. The complaint was upheld by the Federal Magistrates Court. Such successful complaints have been all too rare an occurrence and it is time the Australian legislature considers introducing enforceable hate crime offences, yet with a minimal impact on freedom of expression. This view as to how Australia is dealing with a hate crime is not new. James’s 2007 study into the policing of right-wing violence in Australia identified several communities vulnerable to hate crime and advocated a commitment by the police to a ‘human rights enforcement ethic’ rendering intolerable the victimisation of vulnerable communities of a hate crime. Dean et.al’s 2016 study on the rise of the radical right in Australia found an increase in right-wing extremism in Australia that poses a political and community challenge not only to Australian Muslims but also to native Australian groups.
A Right to Hatred?
When examining US hate provisions, we find that there is no statutory definition. This could be due to the fact that freedom of expression is an inviolable right guranteed by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. Evidence of this is seen on the FBI’s website which states that hate is not a crime and the agency is mindful of freedom of speech and civil liberties. That said, the FBI does say that for statistical purposes they have provided their own definition of hate crime which is when a “traditional crime” is committed it is motivated by the offender’s bias against, “…race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and gender identity”.
In order to have a consistent level in addressing hate crime, it is averred that countries like the US and Australia should adopt the approach taken by the legislators and judiciary in the UK and the rest of Europe in delineating when speech becomes a hate crime while balancing the right to freedom of expression. To put some context into what is legally acceptable in relation to freedom of expression, in the English case of Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Justice Sedley said:
Important in this decision is that freedom of speech does not provoke violence and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has adopted a similar approach (Handyside v UK (1976), Application Number 5493/72). In Erbaken v Turkey (2006), the ECtHR tempered freedom of expression saying that tolerance and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings constitute the foundation of a democratic, pluralistic society, adding:
As covered above, there are many examples of far-right activities in the US and Australia that appear to cross the threshold of what is acceptable under European freedom of expression and serious consideration should be taken by both countries in criminalising such commentary through legislation as a hate crime and for Canada when it comes to prosecuting group activity. Examples of when this occurs can be seen in the UK’s hate crime offences. UK hate crime comes under Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 to deal with the offences of:
1. Using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or displays written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intent of stirring up racial hatred or having regards to the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up (Section 18);
2. Publishing or distributing material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intent to stir up racial hatred or having regards to the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up (section 19).
Hatred is defined as:
As in the US, New Zealand has no hate crime legislation, which is again due to issues related to impinging upon freedom of expression. Following the Christchurch attack, New Zealand Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, said that the police and the Human Rights Commission were investigating whether a new category of offence should be created. This is a step in the right direction, but as electronic communications are global, as we witnessed in the case of the Islamist groups, we are increasingly seeing the internationalisation of far-right activity. It is imperative for states to work together in producing consistency in statutory definitions of hate crime that crosses the parameters of what is acceptable freedom of expression. This will not only assist the social media companies but will set global parameters of what is and is not legally accepted within the freedom of expression making it easier for states to regulate companies who do not comply with any regulation related to hate posts that glorify to promote violence. Following the Christchurch attack, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has called for a global fight to root out what she refers to as racist right-wing ideology, saying:
‘…I would make that a global call. …What New Zealand experienced here was violence brought against us by someone who grew up and learned their ideology somewhere else. If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world, we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries.’
Jacinda Ardern is right to make this call because if states continue to have inconsistency in relation to what legally amounts to hate and freedom of expression, this quite naturally has a knock-on effect on social media companies when deciding what posts to delete or ban.
The tragic terrorist attack in Christchurch is not the only attack carried out by someone influenced by the ideology of the extreme far-right. As seen from the cases discussed above, this has been ongoing for a number of years and includes attacks of a similar style as witnessed in Christchurch, with the number of attacks inspired by the extreme far-right increasing.
With the world’s focus being on Islamist inspired terrorism, extreme far-right and far-right inspired violence seems to have slipped under many states’ radar. This is concerning. It does not have to be members of the extreme far-right and far-right groups but individuals with no connections to those groups who are influenced by their ideology who are carrying out the attacks.
As we have seen from the violent attacks covered above, it only takes one individual with a firearm, sharply bladed instrument or an improvised explosive device to cause the death of those the attackers hate simply because of the victim’s beliefs, religion or some other difference. As we witness an increase in the internationalisation of the actions and promotion of the extreme far-right and the far-right, current inconsistencies in some states are hampering the ability of social media and internet companies to differentiate between bone fide political commentary and extremist hate speech. It is hoped that states will rally to Jacinda Ardern’s call to adopt a global approach in minimising the impact and influence of the extreme far-right and far-right ideology. A starting point is deriving a minimum baseline definition of hate crime to be adopted by states from which social media and internet companies can operate with legal certainty thus allowing them to differentiate between genuine political commentary and extremist hate speech that glorifies or promotes others to commit violence.
David is a senior research fellow at Leeds Beckett University’s Law School where he researches terrorism & security, policing and criminal law. He also runs his own consultancy business providing expert witness work and provides advice on law and policy in his research areas.
Prior to becoming an academic, David was a police officer with a varied career covering a variety of uniform and CID roles, including counter-terrorism investigations. He is consistently used by the media for expert commentary on his research areas. David’s work is widely published in books, book chapters, and journal articles. His latest books include ‘Terrorism: Law and Policy’ published by Routledge in 2018 and ‘Policing Terrorism’ published by CRC Press in 2016.
His latest book, ‘Terrorism and State Surveillance of Communication that he co-wrote with Simon Hale-Ross is published by Routledge in June 2019. More information of David’s consultancy business can be accessed via his website drdavidlowe.co.uk and his email is D.Lowe@leedsbeckett.ac.ukArticle picture: NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits the Muslim community the day after the Christchurch mosque shootings. Photographer: Kirk Hargreaves. Wikipedia.
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