After the Christchurch massacre: Fears of a ‘Dark Web’

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 21 Mar 2019

victim of Christchurch shooting
Ambulance staff attend to a victim of Christchurch mosque shooting (Photo: AP)

Fears are growing that neo-Nazis and Islamic State militants alike may be using the Internet to support their activities, making it a breeding ground for terrorism and extremism.

The “Dark Web,” a platform for both Nazi enthusiasts and Islamic State (IS) militants, has come under scrutiny in Europe.

The argument that more Internet encryption is necessarily beneficial to democracy, privacy and cyber-security was dealt a severe blow as details emerged of the tools utilised during the anti-Muslim massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this week.

Australian national Brenton Tarrant, currently standing trial for his terrorist attack on two mosques on Friday, killing 50 people and injuring 50 others, reportedly prepared himself for the attack not just through content available on the Internet, but also via encrypted networks described as the “underground Internet.”

It is also commonly referred to as the “Dark Web,” a part of the Internet that is not indexed by regular search engines. According to a 2016 study by King’s College, London, 57 per cent of the content hosts illicit material.

The gunman, 28, live-streamed his attack on Facebook for 17 minutes. He also made a 73-page manifesto available days before the shooting, reportedly through the anonymous file-sharing services used by the Islamic State terrorist group.

Although Facebook said it had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, including 1.2 million blocked during uploads, the video is still not difficult to find.

Tarrant posted download links to his manifesto, which linked to extreme right-wing propaganda on his social-media accounts before they too were suspended. It now appears on messaging boards.

The fact that the gunman was possibly self-radicalised online and successfully made his video and manifesto widely available is feeding fears that the online underground has become a breeding ground for extremism.

Shortly before beginning his attack, Tarrant posted one final time to the imageboard site 8Chan, saying “well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real-life effort post.” 8Chan, or infinitychan, emerged in 2013 as a response by its creator to what he perceived as rapid surveillance and the loss of free speech on the Internet.

Although the site’s terms of use prohibit anything explicitly illegal, the unrestricted nature of 8Chan means that topics like child abuse can surface.

While 8Chan is accessible to anyone, it has since the shooting been referred to as part of the “Dark Web” (links to Tarrant’s Facebook video were shared on 8Chan).

While the term alludes to heavily encrypted networks where much illegal content is shared, the fact that mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter enabled Tarrant to disseminate his content has demonstrated how dark social media can become.

On Saturday, the US magazine Foreign Policy proclaimed that “The Dark Web Enabled the Christchurch Killer.”

In his manifesto, Tarrant named Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as his source of inspiration. Breivik killed 77 people in 2011.

His targets, government representatives and members of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party’s youth wing, were selected on the charge of being so-called “cultural Marxist traitors” deliberately facilitating a “Muslim invasion” of Norway.

“Besides the high death toll, it was one of few cases where the perpetrator completely self-radicalised online. It was also the only complex extreme-right terrorist attack in the past three decades that combined explosives with firearms,” wrote Jacob Assland Ravndal, a postdoctoral fellow with the Centre for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo.

“Both these characteristics seem to be shared by the Christchurch shooter, who carried explosives in one of his cars, and appears to have self-radicalised online without interacting with organised extreme-right groups.”

Since the Christchurch terrorist targeted mosques and Muslims rather than white children, “he may end up with greater status inside the underground movement than Breivik did,” Ravndal added. “There are already indications on various extreme-right forums that readers support the attacks.”

The UK parliament on Monday attacked both 8Chan and 4Chan (the first imageboard Website created in 2003) where “misogynists… and both IS militants and neo-Nazi far-right white supremacists gather their followers.”

In Germany, the legislative body that represents the country’s states, the Bundesrat, voted to introduce legislation that would criminalise the act of providing technical infrastructure for so-called “Dark Web” marketplaces where illegal activities take place.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fears of a ‘Dark Web’ 

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