Grim warning over ‘terror’ risk
When the US was rocked by twin shootings that left 31 dead last weekend, Australians were filled with sorrow - but not surprise.
After all, the El Paso and Dayton massacres were just the latest examples of the gun violence epidemic that has plagued the country for decades, which most of us tend to view as a uniquely American problem.
But a US expert has warned there's much more to the story - and that Australia could be at risk of similar "terrorist" attacks on our own soil.
Angelo Carusone is the president of Media Matters, a non-profit organisation dedicated to correcting media "misinformation" - and monitoring the serious threats posed by online platforms like 4chan and 8chan.
For the uninitiated, 8chan is a message board devoted to extreme free speech - and it's also where El Paso gunman Patrick Crucius posted his sick, 2300-word manifesto before opening fire at a Texas Walmart on August 3 in what is believed to be a racially-motivated hate crime.
It's also where Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant linked to a live-stream of his horrific Christchurch mosque attacks, which killed 51 and injured 49 in March.
The following month, John T. Earnest also posted an extreme anti-Semitic letter on the site before gunning down worshippers at a synagogue in Poway, California, leaving one dead and three injured.
4chan is an earlier, slightly less extreme version of 8chan, where users anonymously share twisted content and opinions.
Mr Carusone said the Global Terrorism Index showed far-right extremism was on the rise across the world, and that countries were increasingly at risk of homegrown terrorism perpetrated by right-wing fanatics.
He said the Christchurch massacre was proof the "threat is spreading" - and that Australia was not immune.
"(Australians) should recognise this is not isolated to just one country - it's spreading globally and fast," Mr Carusone said.
"People should do an assessment and think about how extremism is incubating in their own communities.
"I think most people would be truly surprised by the statistic, but the reality is that most forms of terrorism are by right-wing extremists. What happened in Christchurch was connected (to 8chan) so it's a global issue."
He said there was a tendency for people to consider these platforms to exist on the "fringe" - but that 4chan was actually one of the top 500 websites in the world in terms of traffic.
"What disturbs me the most is that there has always been terrible stuff in the world - but 10 years ago, this used to be on the fringe, which was scary … but it's no longer the fringe any more," Mr Carusone said.
"It's not really the people who are already crazy and radicalised who really scare me. It's the effect these communities have in actually shaping and moving people into increasingly extreme actions."
He said it was easy to "lose part of yourself" after spending just a "couple of days" browsing these sites, which were filled with violent images, "rape fantasies" and hatred aimed at minorities.
"That's just how awful it is - there are very disturbing pictures there of murders, of people being stabbed, of their eyes being ripped out - and these people laugh about it; it's a joke to them," Mr Carusone said.
"You can't avoid these incredibly violent graphics and visuals and even if you don't read a single word, it's damaging and hurtful.
"A couple of days ago, for example, I saw a post where a person offered themselves as a hit person willing to injure or kill somebody, and there's tons of examples of messages like that."
He said amid the deluge of troubling content on these sites, themes of misogyny, anti-Semitism and racism were particularly rampant.
And he said what was especially alarming was the fact that some "extreme" conspiracy theories and ideologies - which first surfaced on these sites then filtered through to Facebook - were picked up by conservative public figures who repeated them to a mass audience.
One example was the so-called "Pizzagate" conspiracy, which involved the false claim that a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats was operating out of a pizza joint in Washington D.C.
Mr Carusone said Media Matters had collected Pizzagate content from 4chan and reported it to the authorities, as it was feared the controversy could potentially inspire a conspiracist to target that business in a "revenge" attack.
For now, Media Matters is dedicated to tracking these potential threats and reporting them to authorities in the hope of preventing future tragedies.
But for Mr Carusone, the outlook is grim.
"There's a lot of energy to have some kind of crackdown right now and most people will want action, but I also think … there's this melancholy state … where everyone knows it's inevitable that (another) event like this is right around the corner," he said.