Making Sense of the New Zealand Shooter’s Mention of BitConnect

Those of us in the U.S. awoke this morning to the horrible news of yet another terrorist attack by apparent white supremacists. It left at least 49 dead at two mosques in New Zealand. Four people have been detained, but attention has focused on one man, reportedly a white Australian in his late twenties, who appears to have posted a lengthy manifesto online just before the attack. In that lengthy document, the suspected attacker wrote that instead of attending a university he “worked for a short time before making some money investing in BitConnect, then used the money from the investment to travel.”

This appears to be the only mention of cryptocurrency of any sort in the document, which is relentlessly focused on repeating boilerplate white supremacist ideology. Nonetheless, given the gravity of events, it may prove significant to understanding this crime. The following is a brief attempt, by a journalist who has been focused on cryptocurrency for many years, to explain what BitConnect was and what significance its mention in this context might have, in part for the benefit of journalists and other researchers with less domain expertise.

In the broadest terms, BitConnect was a pyramid scheme which attempted to capitalize on the craze for cryptocurrencies that exploded in 2017. Its promoters pitched it as a successor to digital tokens like bitcoin, which had themselves produced huge investment returns for early buyers. However, the fraudulent nature of the scheme was apparent to many observers within the cryptocurrency community, who attempted to issue warnings. Despite these efforts, the scheme reportedly attracted billions of dollars worth of “investments” worldwide.

Though BitConnect was a scam, it is possible that the alleged Christchurch terrorist was being truthful when he wrote that he made money from it. For a time in late 2017 and early 2018, BitConnect’s digital token, BCC, had risen to more than 100 times its early 2017 value. At that point, it could be sold or traded on a number of cryptocurrency exchanges. But by mid-January of 2018, BitConnect shut down and the value of its BCC tokens collapsed. The scheme’s organizers and promoters have since been investigated and detained by law-enforcement agencies worldwide. The full details of BitConnect’s leadership are still unknown, but much of the money put into the scheme by victims may still be in the hands of its masterminds.

While the alleged New Zealand shooter’s mention of profiting from BitConnect may have been simply factual, it can be interpreted in a different light. Analysts including Robert Evans at Bellingcat have pointed out that many elements of the manifesto are drawn from online memes, and some seem intended to misdirect journalists or bait them into writing sensationalistic headlines.

Since its collapse, BitConnect has itself become meme fodder, in particular thanks to a video clip of a BitConnect “investor” named Carlos Matos cheerfully celebrating the scheme at a promotional event. The subtext of the Matos-BitConnect meme is essentially defeatist and nihilistic: It focuses on a person who is being cheated but does not know it yet.

The mention of BitConnect, then, may have been intended to dovetail with the broader frame of victimhood that Western and white supremacist terrorists have frequently used to justify or explain their actions, which itself overlaps with a specific sense of victimhood common among some speculative cryptocurrency investors.

The crypto bubble of 2017 to early 2018 attracted a huge influx of would-be crypto investors looking to strike it rich. A subset of these gathered on the /biz subforum of 4chan, an anonymous message board that is broadly a locus of both racist ideology and malicious “trolling” behavior, and may have helped radicalize other contemporary terrorists. Many of the users of /biz claim similar biographical details to the Christchurch terrorist, particularly a (self-proclaimed) lack of credentials, skills, and access to good jobs. These posters often refer to themselves as NEET, an acronym for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training,” and have persistently talked about crypto investing as a way to escape their (again, self-proclaimed) dead-end existences. (The appeal of cryptocurrency investing as an “escape route” was also discussed at some length on the most recent episode of the CoinTalk podcast).

Though the point is still hotly debated, some experts believe that isolation, depression, self-loathing, and hopelessness—as much or more than political ideology—can be motivating factors for terrorists.

As I’ve described elsewhere, the crypto-centric /biz forum on 4chan was flooded with hate speech as the crypto bubble collapsed over the course of 2018. My interpretation is that this cadre, primarily young white males, was seeing the evaporation of a possible escape from their own sense of hopelessness, and redirected their frustration at easy targets presented to them by the broader discourse of hate on 4chan. This interpretation aligns with some attempts to understand hate and terrorism: Though the point is still hotly debated, some experts believe that isolation, depression, self-loathing, and hopelessness—as much or more than political ideology—can be motivating factors for terrorists.

That the alleged shooter explicitly references profiting from a scam echoes a broader cynicism about contemporary society that is widespread, but particularly concentrated among denizens of 4chan. Though this cynicism is displaced onto figures including Muslims, Jews, and immigrants, some analysts have argued that it is more fundamentally rooted in the rise of corruption and cheating as visible paths to success, exemplified over the past decade in the twin images of Wall Street and Donald Trump.

As the vital “Oxygen of Amplification” report from the Data & Society think tank has argued, attempts to illuminate the mindset of terrorists can unintentionally feed into their glorification and help spread their beliefs. And I hope this attempt to unpack statements made by an alleged mass murderer avoids the trap of justifying or excusing his actions. But the narrow thread connecting an alleged anti-Muslim terrorist to speculative crypto investing, and specifically to a fraudulent pyramid scheme, may offer the kind of “political or social action point” that the report encourages journalists to focus on. It reminds us that corruption, at whatever point on the continuum from small-time grift to high-level system-rigging, triggers resentments that can be easily redirected into hate, and ultimately metastasize into tragedy.