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Into the dark: How a simple Internet search could lead to a path of self-radicalisation

SINGAPORE – It started with a simple Google search with keywords including Brenton Tarrant and the first item listed was the Christchurch attacker’s 87-page manifesto.

A quick hunt for his supporters online led to several forums, where hate speech peppers almost every comment. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination saturate the message boards.

In one such thread, there is a link to a YouTube video of a song, which can surprisingly be found on Spotify.

It is a song with xenophobia as the theme, and a rallying cry to wage war against foreigners who have “invaded” homelands.

Uploaded last year, it had more than 70,000 views and 2,000 likes, and fewer than a hundred dislikes. In the comments section, users called it an anthem and encouraged others to “rise up” as “patriots”.

Each link led to even darker corners. Within two hours of the initial search for the 29-year-old Australian responsible for butchering 51 people in New Zealand in 2019, The Sunday Times had descended into a radical hole filled with video hosting sites touting raw, uncensored and graphic footage.

Some of these sites do not bother to warn of the content or probe the viewer’s age, but they host harrowing content.

Horrific killings, massacres and mutilation of flesh caught on camera, often from the point of view of the perpetrators.

It is reviling, but compelling and all real.

While Tarrant’s xenophobic comments may be dismissed as a rambling attempt at intellectualising hatred, his call to action against foreign “invaders” did inspire a 16-year-old Protestant Christian here to plan an attack on two mosques in Singapore.

The youth, who was arrested last month, has been detained under the Internal Security Act.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) said the Secondary 4 student had developed a fascination with violent material, and from 2019, actively searched for sites and forums with gore.

He became particularly angered by a video of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group executing Ethiopian Christians in Libya, from which he wrongly concluded that Islam taught its followers to kill Christians.

“He then found Tarrant’s manifesto and live-streamed video of the Christchurch attacks, and with the belief that the Muslim fertility rate would lead to the subjugation of Christians to Islamic rule in Singapore, plotted his own copycat attacks here,” said the ISD last Wednesday.

A study in 2018 by global think-tank Digital Quotient Institute found that children in Singapore spend more time online compared with those in other countries. They are glued to their screens for 35 hours a week – three hours more than the global average.

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The study had surveyed 38,000 children in 29 countries.

Extremist propaganda from ISIS can easily be found online and it has played a well-documented role in inspiring lone wolf attacks around the world. But right-wing material is just as easily found and has similarly inspired offline behaviour.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam sounded a note of caution at the global rise in right-wing extremism creeping into Singapore as well.

Speaking about the arrest of the teenager, he said violent impulses are not restricted to any particular racial or religious group.

“It can occur amongst anyone. It’s really a question of being exposed to hate speech and then being influenced by it.”

He noted that Tarrant was influenced by Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, and American white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine black parishioners in South Carolina four years later.

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A 2013 research paper by European non-profit Rand Corporation found that the Internet had acted as an “echo chamber” for extremist belief and created opportunities for individuals to become radicalised.

It is easy to see how a young person may be drawn in by like-minded people. The Singapore student was not just motivated by what he consumed, he wanted to inspire others.

He had prepared two documents that he intended to disseminate prior to his attacks – one as a message to the people of France to stand against Muslims, and the second as a manifesto detailing his hatred for Islam.

The youth tried to buy a rifle online but failed. He bought a flak jacket and attempted to purchase a machete on Carousell, which continues to have listings for a variety of blades, and researched online for the most efficient way to kill.

He watched YouTube videos and was confident that he would be able to hit the arteries of his targets by randomly slashing at the neck and chest areas.

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Such material is not difficult to find online, with articles and discussions on the topic widely available on blogs and forums.

A Sunday Times search found ways to effect a massacre, while others led to steps needed to use a 3D printer to make guns. Getting the schematics for one took only minutes.

By about 12.30am, just over two hours after the initial search, the experiment was over. It clearly demonstrated the ease at which an individual could be radicalised and groomed online, especially in an echo chamber of extremist views.

A virtual private network, to disguise the entry point, was not needed and the search did not take place on the Dark Web.

All it took was a simple Google search.

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