Byron Clark

Byron Clark: Not so quiet on the Western Front

Not so quiet on the Western Front

There's some awfully angry white people in Aotearoa/NZ. Take a look at some of the social media posts at right/below. This kind of bile has been receiving a lot more attention since the Christchurch attack. By and large, this has made them even angrier. Byron Clark is a friendly, thoughtful kind of guy — an unlikely character to be leading the social media response against far-right extremism. As the alt right has got angrier, Byron has got funnier. You can subscribe to his YouTube channel here and/or follow him on Twitter here. And if you like what he's doing, please consider helping him in his work here.

You’ve been wading through an awful lot of muck over the past few months. What’s driving you?
I’d been keeping an eye on the growth of the alt-right for a few years prior to the Al Noor Mosque shooting. Starting from 2014 seeing the coordinated harassment tactics of Gamergate (and no doubt many of the participants) be co-opted by far-right provocateurs, watching the counter-culture that developed on some of the disreputable parts of the web and spread to more mainstream social media, the rise of “anti-SJW” YouTube channels mainstreaming a lot of far-right ideas, and then the influence all this had on the US election in 2016. I began watching a lot of local Facebook pages and YouTube channels that were pushing similar stuff, initially without a particular goal in mind.

After the shooting happened people began to come to me with their questions as it become known in my social network that I had some knowledge in this area. So I began to watch the local far-right even more closely. I’ve now spoken about the alt-right at forums organised by Together Against Racism and the local United Nations Association (the conspiracy theorists reading this will no doubt have fun with that fact). To get information out to a wider audience I decided to start making video essays, as I thought I could reach more people with video than with text based articles or a podcast. Part of the reason for the rise of the alt-right has been the way they have gamed YouTube’s recommendation algorithm to draw in viewers. I’ve read that the medium suits the right because it favours the format of the single authoritative speaker rather than a dialogue that is more common for discourse on the left. But there’s a growing movement of left-leaning YouTubers who are taking on the right in one of the online spaces they’ve claimed, and it’s having some impact.

The second motivator is that the events of March 15 showed we can’t stop racism just by being not-racist, its necessary to be anti-racist. In the evening after the shooting, a co-worker offered me a ride home if I didn’t want to be out on the streets on my bike. I declined because by that point, while we didn’t know if there were multiple gunmen, we had enough info for me to know any potential gunman out there wouldn’t be looking for a Pākehā man. It was a real wake up call for the privilege I have- I could keep my head down, and be perfectly safe from the far-right, but I didn’t want to keep my head down. Because of the mahi I’m doing now, I was told by one commenter on a video that I’d “painted a target on my back” and that just made me think about how the shooter in Christchurch decided everyone at the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic centre was a target, and all they’d done to become a target was go about their lives practicing their faith. I think its important for the anti-racism movement to centre the voices of people of colour who can speak from a perspective I can’t, but there’s definitely a role for Pākehā to play as well.

You’ve been under pretty heavy attack since you began this work. You’ve been called a narcissist and a shittermuppet and a soy boy and (sigh) a nazi. How are you holding up?
The insults don’t bother me much, when it’s the schoolyard style bullying it just demonstrates they can’t actually argue the politics, so this is what they resort to, and I think anyone reading the comments on my videos is left with that impression. It’s also a very deliberate tactic to try and silence critics, one that we saw back in the Gamergate days, so I know the attacks are not even really sincere, it’s just say-the-worst-thing-you-can to shut me up. The privilege thing comes in here as well, because while I get a lot of negative comments about my appearance and my weight in particular, if you look at the comments under a totally apolitical YouTube video of a young woman playing a guitar, you’ll find the comments are much, much worse. So I’m OK with taking one for the team in this case.

A lot of the insults also say more about the people making them than they do about me. Something that seems to become increasingly clear doing this stuff- and this is likely to be the topic of a future video essay or series of essays- is how much the alt-right is driven by anxieties about masculinity. There’s a whole conspiracy theory about how Western men are being deliberately emasculated. The “soyboy” insult comes from the idea that phytoestrogens found in soy are making men more feminine (something there is no scientific evidence for), and according to the conspiracy theories this emasculation means the West can then be conquered by hordes of darker skinned men who will then take white women away from white men (you know, as if they’re property to begin with) leading to interracial children and therefore the decline of the “white” race. This is where the “cuck” insult comes from, referencing a genre of pornography where a (usually black) man will have sex with another man’s wife. So the insult is a way of saying that people like me are allowing the West to be conquered by non-white people, which isn’t something I feel insulted by. I remember explaining to a friend why a comment on one of my videos stating “my wife’s son loved this!” was a troll and not just a strange way of phrasing “step son” its meant to be an insult, but if you’re not part of that subculture of insecure white men where being a stepdad is a sign of failure, its not insulting (I’m not a step dad by the way, but if I was, I still wouldn’t find this insulting).

You’ve uncovered some real creeps in your research—people who openly revel in the idea of another mosque attack. How seriously should we be taking the risk of a copycat attack?
The Facebook page where the admin said he’d “destroy mosque after mosque until I’m taken out” was the first time I’d seen something I then reported to police. I’d seen other pages share the Christchurch shooting live stream, (which is a crime of course) but seeing those links didn’t make me think there could be an immediate threat to anyone. On that Facebook post people had left comments like “Christchurch will only be a warm up” and “I suspect you will have lots of people joining you, they are all scum”. I’d hate to have seen that and an attack to happen, knowing I hadn’t done anything.

Copycat attacks are a definite risk, as we’re already seen several- the Poway Synagogue shooter in California, the El Paso shooter in Texas, and the Norwegian man who attempted a mass shooting in an Oslo mosque all cited the Christchurch shooter as inspiration, and the gunman who attempted to enter a synagogue in Halle in Germany appears to have been influenced by the Christchurch event as well.

I of course can’t predict if another attack will occur in this country, but I’m sad to say if it happened I wouldn’t be surprised. The people you might call alt-right opinion leaders encourage their followers to distrust mainstream media and academia, and only get their news from alt-right sources. What this means is there are people out there who get all their information from Facebook pages and YouTube channels that tell them an Islamic takeover is underway, often claiming that London or Sweden has already been taken over, which is ridiculous, but something someone on the other side of the world in New Zealand could believe if all the media they were consuming was saying that. The Christchurch shooter wrote in his manifesto that he planned to plead innocent (which he has) because he saw himself as a soldier fighting an invading army. Could someone else in that alt-right echo chamber convince themselves they’re not a terrorist but a freedom fighter? Absolutely.

There’s a concept known as stochastic terrorism. The idea is that inflammatory rhetoric from people with a platform increases the probability of a “lone wolf” terrorist attack, but as there’s no clear link between the person making the inflammatory statements, and the person committing violence, the former can’t be held responsible. Similar to how science can tell us that climate change makes hurricanes more likely to occur, but we can’t point at an individual hurricane and say it happened because of climate change. We’ve been in a kind of rapid warming period for the past five to ten years when it comes to stochastic terrorism, and as well as mitigating the damages we also have to do something about the harmful emissions.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.