- Few people understand the full extent of the alt-right’s disinformation ecosphere, according to Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Bellingcat investigative news web site.
- Many journalists believe that disinformation and fake news stem largely from state actors like Russia or China. But there’s a huge home-grown ecosystem of bogus news in the West, he says.
- The best example of the ignorance surrounding the scale of disinformation was the „manifesto“ allegedly written by accused Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, he says.
- The manifesto is „not a serious document, but written in a way that was heavily focused on in-jokes for the 8chan community,“ Higgins says.
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Very few traditional media journalists understand the full extent of the alt-right’s disinformation ecosphere, according to Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative journalism web site Bellingcat.
Higgins and Bellingcat are best-known for unveiling the extent of the Russian state’s assassination programs in Europe. The site was the first to identify by name the GRU agents who conducted the poisoning in Salisbury, England, that targeted Sergey Skripal.
The best example of the ignorance surrounding the scale of disinformation was the „manifesto“ allegedly written by accused Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, Higgins said in an interview with First Draft News.
It contains a series of in-jokes and memes, apparently published for the amusement of posters on the online bulletin board 8chan. While much of the manifesto reads like a standard neo-Nazi racist tract, it includes lines such as, „Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism. Fortnite taught me to be a killer and to floss the corpses of my enemies.“
The manifesto is „not a serious document, but written in a way that was heavily focused on in-jokes for the 8chan community,“ Higgins says. The document will likely be used against Tarrant in his upcoming murder trial for the deaths of 51 people shot at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
„We have this alternative media ecosystem that is driving a lot of disinformation. It is not understood by journalists or anyone really beyond a very small group of people who are really engaged with it. I doubt that even the alt-media ecosystem really understands its own nature and how it grows organically rather than being an organized space.“
Higgins‘ worry is that most people – and most journalists – believe that fake news and disinformation originates only from state actors, such as Russia and China, and can thus be easily blocked or dealt with once identified. In reality, Higgins says, there are entire communities on the alt-right dedicated to spreading misinformation (often in the form of humorous or offensive memes) that have nothing to do with foreign interference. It’s home-grown.
Higgins points to an analysis of the manifesto done by one of his journalists, Robert Evans. „This manifesto is a trap,“ Evans wrote. „The entire manifesto is dotted, liberally, with references to memes and Internet in-jokes that only the extremely online would get.“
One of them is the „Navy SEAL copypasta“ joke. The text is a parody of „a facetious message containing a series of ridiculous claims and grandiose threats that portray the poster as an Internet tough guy stereotype,“ according to Know Your Meme, the web site that tracks online jokes.
Tarrant used the text as an answer in the Q&A section of his manifesto:
Another example: Before Tarrant began shooting, he shouted „Subscribe to PewDiePie.“ This is another reference to an online joke about the popularity of a YouTube star who makes videos about games.
„That would have been the mass-shooter’s final joke against society: to trick all journalists into writing inaccurate and stupid copy and going after certain individuals who pretended to be influencing him,“ Higgins told First Draft.
„For us that was a purposeful attempt at disinformation by an individual that would have a big impact on the entire journalism ecosystem, and very few people within that ecosystem would have been equipped to actually understand what they were looking at.“
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