When I heard that reports of gunfire at a mosque in Christchurch, I knew almost straight away what it was going to be. I logged on to 4chan, an anonymous online forum where this kind of hate breeds, and what I saw was far worse than I could have believed.

I knew where to go because I've been studying it for the last three years as part of my PhD at the University of Canterbury. I'm looking at how the alt-right use communities online to radicalise young people into digital neo-fascists. I went to 4chan because it contains one of the most active and easily-reached alt-right communities on the internet.

4chan's boards were lighting up, and they seemed to be hours ahead of reports in the media. Responses there were mixed: some were disgusted, but many were overjoyed. Most were like me and had simply gone there for information.

The killer posted a message on 8chan (which is a sister-site to 4chan) saying that he felt it was time to "stop shitposting" and "carry out and [sic] attack on the invaders". His posts included links to a manifesto like the ones written by Anders Behring Brevik and Dylann Roof, and to a live-streaming video from a camera attached to his helmet.

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The livestream was taken down quickly, but viewers saved the video and posted it to YouTube, repeatedly reuploading it as each copy was taken down. At that stage the media were reporting only a few deaths, but when I clicked the link I could see that there were many more. It was one of the most shocking and awful things I've ever seen, but it was also painfully familiar.

As a researcher, it is my responsibility to put my hand in the proverbial fire, but make no mistake, I wish I didn't have to watch that video, and nobody else should. The video is terrorist propaganda, and no matter what perspective we view it from, to view it is to give oxygen to his message.

Based on the references to racist internet memes painted on his guns and strewn through his video, and the 'black sun' symbols attached to his vest, it was clear that the shooter was a member of the pro-fascist alt-right communities that I have been studying.

The black sun symbol was used by the SS during the second world war and is now used generally by neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right. It has vague associations with the Nazi occult, but doesn't imply membership in any particular group.

The memes are references to niche internet humour that is designed to shock, but may also serve to acclimatise young viewers to casual racism and violence. These references and in-jokes show clearly that his attack was designed to impress an alt-right audience.

Members of these communities tend to be white, young, male, and angry. They feel let down by a society that promised them the world and then delivered a global financial crisis just as they were becoming old enough to work, and they see feminism and multiculturalism as the reason they struggle to find a place in life.

They look to the radical right because it offers a response to this status quo that feels new and exciting, and because it offers them a way to return to a society where white male superiority is unquestioned.

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch where the deadliest of the two mass shootings occurred. Photo / AP
A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch where the deadliest of the two mass shootings occurred. Photo / AP

These groups are ethno-nationalists, and believe that the only way to achieve a peaceful society is to replace modern nations with "ethno-states" that are comprised of only one racial group. They believe a range of (often contradictory) conspiracy theories that generally centre around a Jewish plan to conquer the world by race-mixing the population into subservience. Some are more focused on Islam, which they see as the enemy of white western culture.

The alt-right offers easy explanations for their failures that allow them to blame powerful enemies, and convinces them that they can be heroes in a culture war that could erupt any day now.

The alt-right are leaderless, with very few major figures who can steer their movement one way or another. They have tended to reject anyone who has attempted to do so, quickly becoming suspicious that they might be a shill for their enemies.

This keeps them away from organised political action, and tends to make them slow and ineffective, as we saw with the disorganised protests in Charlottesville, USA in 2017, where their largest ever group demonstration quickly fell into an embarrassing and disharmonious mess.

Police officers search for evidence near the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch in the aftermath of the deadly attacks. Photo / AP
Police officers search for evidence near the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch in the aftermath of the deadly attacks. Photo / AP

Some limited groups have seemed to be attempting to put their radical ideology into practice by forming something akin to terror cells. On another website, which the Herald is not naming, which is a dedicated fascist forum that members go to once 4chan has become too tame, I have seen posts showing small groups of two or three men doing military-style training together, although it is hard to say whether these groups are actually much different than other right-wing militia groups, of which there are many.

I saw no evidence that any of these groups existed in New Zealand, but now that's questionable.

Fortunately, these groups do have an obvious weakness in their brazenness: as white men, they have tended to have little to fear from law enforcement, so have exposed a surprising amount of their internal discourse to the public internet. It's one of the reasons I've been able to study them so closely, and I don't think it's a habit they will break any time soon. While our intelligence agencies and police were tragically unable to intercept today's events, there is good reason to believe that they won't be caught off guard again.

At least they shouldn't be. Terror has traditionally been seen as the purview of Islamic extremists, but that thinking that clearly needs to change.

*Ben Elley is a senior researcher at Independent Research Solutions who is completing his PhD on the alt-right and online radicalisation.