The recent horrifying terrorist attack in New Zealand has cast new blame on how technology platforms police content. There are now questions about whether global internet services are designed to work this way? And if online viral hate is uncontainable?
Fifty one people so far have been reported to be dead and 50 more injured after the terrorist attacks on two New Zealand mosques on Friday. The victims included children as young as 3 and 4 years old, and elderly men and women.
The alleged shooter is identified as a 28 year old Australian man named Brenton Tarrant. Brenton announced the attack on the anonymous-troll message board 8chan. There, he posted images of the weapons days before the attack, and made an announcement an hour before the shooting.
On 8chan, Facebook and Twitter, he also posted links to a 74-page manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement,” blaming immigration for the displacement of whites in Oceania and elsewhere. The manifesto cites “white genocide” as a motive for the attack, and calls for “a future for white children” as its goal.
Further he live-streamed the attacks on Facebook, YouTube; and posted a link to the stream on 8chan.
It’s terrifying and disgusting, especially when 8chan is one of the sites where disaffected internet misfits create memes and other messages to provoke dismay and sow chaos among people. “8chan became the new digital home for some of the most offensive people on the internet, people who really believe in white supremacy and the inferiority of women,” Ethan Chiel wrote. “It’s time to stop shitposting,” the alleged shooter’s 8chan post reads, “and time to make a real-life effort post.” Many of the responses, anonymous by 8chan’s nature, celebrate the attack, with some posting congratulatory Nazi memes. A few seem to decry it, just for logistical quibbles. And others lament that the whole affair might destroy the site, a concern that betrays its users’ priorities.
Social media encourages performance crime
The use of social media technology and livestreaming marks the attack as different from many other terrorist incidents. It is a form of violent “performance crime”. That is, the video streaming is a central component of the violence itself, it’s not somehow incidental to the crime, or a trophy for the perpetrator to re-watch later.
In the past, terrorism functioned according to what has been called the “theatre of terror”, which required the media to report on the spectacle of violence created by the group. Nowadays with social media in our hands it’s much easier for someone to both create the spectacle of horrific violence and distribute it widely by themselves.
There is a tragic and recent history of performance crime videos that use live streaming and social media video services as part of their tactics.
In 2017, for example, the sickening murder video of an elderly man in Ohio was uploaded to Facebook, and the torture of a man with disabilities in Chicago was live streamed. In 2015, the murder of two journalists was simultaneously broadcast on-air, and live streamed.
Tech companies on the radar
Social-media companies scrambled to take action as the news—and the video—of the attack spread.
Facebook finally managed to pull down Tarrant’s profiles and the video, but only after New Zealand police brought the live-stream to the company’s attention. It has been working “around the clock” to remove videos of the incident shared on its platform.
YouTube said it had also removed an “unprecedented volume” of videos of the shooting. Twitter also suspended Tarrant’s account, where he had posted links to the manifesto from several file-sharing sites.
The chaotic aftermath mostly took place while many North Americans slept unaware, waking up to the news and its associated confusion. By morning on the East Coast, news outlets had already weighed in on whether technology companies might be partly to blame for catastrophes such as the New Zealand massacre because they have failed to catch offensive content before it spreads. One of the tweets say Google, Twitter and Facebook made a choice to not use tools available to them to stop white supremacist terrorism.
Google, Twitter and Facebook *already* have the capacity to stop the spread of extremist content online. They’ve successfully removed ISIS content on their platforms for *years.* They just made a choice to not use every tool available to them to stop white supremacist terrorism. https://t.co/I7mFAMvy70
— Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey) March 16, 2019
Countries like Germany and France already have a law in place that demands social media sites move quickly to remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material. Sites that do not remove “obviously illegal” posts could face fines of up to 50m euro (£44.3m).
In the wake of the attack, a consortium of New Zealand’s major companies has pledged to pull their advertising from Facebook. In a joint statement, the Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) and the Commercial Communications Council asked domestic companies to think about where “their advertising dollars are spent, and carefully consider, with their agency partners, where their ads appear.”
They added, “We challenge Facebook and other platform owners to immediately take steps to effectively moderate hate content before another tragedy can be streamed online.”
Additionally internet service providers like Vodafone, Spark and Vocus in New Zealand are blocking access to websites that do not respond or refuse to comply to requests to remove reuploads of the shooter’s original live stream.
The free speech vs safety debate puts social media platforms in the crosshairs
Tech Companies are facing new questions on content moderation following the New Zealand attack. The shooter posted a link to the live stream, and soon after he was apprehended, reuploads were found on other platforms like YouTube and Twitter. “Tech companies basically don’t see this as a priority,” the counter-extremism policy adviser Lucinda Creighton commented. “They say this is terrible, but what they’re not doing is preventing this from reappearing.” Others affirmed the importance of quelling the spread of the manifesto, video, and related materials, for fear of producing copycats, or of at least furthering radicalization among those who would be receptive to the message.
The circulation of ideas might have motivated the shooter as much as, or even more than, ethnic violence. As Charlie Warzel wrote at The New York Times, the New Zealand massacre seems to have been made to go viral. Tarrant teased his intentions and preparations on 8chan. When the time came to carry out the act, he provided a trove of resources for his anonymous members, scattered to the winds of mirror sites and repositories.
Once the live-stream started, one of the 8chan user posted “capped for posterity” on Tarrant’s thread, meaning that he had downloaded the stream’s video for archival and, presumably, future upload to other services, such as Reddit or 4chan, where other like-minded trolls or radicals would ensure the images spread even further. As Warzel put it, “Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube … were no match for the speed of their users.” The internet is a Pandora’s box that never had a lid.
Camouflaging stories is easy but companies trying hard in building AI to catch it
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg defended himself and Facebook before Congress against myriad failures, which included Russian operatives disrupting American elections and permitting illegal housing ads that discriminate by race. Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly invoked artificial intelligence as a solution for the problems his and other global internet companies have created. There’s just too much content for human moderators to process, even when pressed hard to do so under poor working conditions. The answer, Zuckerberg has argued, is to train AI to do the work for them.
But that technique has proved insufficient. That’s because detecting and scrubbing undesirable content automatically is extremely difficult. False positives enrage earnest users or foment conspiracy theories among paranoid ones, thanks to the black-box nature of computer systems. Worse, given a pool of billions of users, the clever ones will always find ways to trick any computer system, for example, by slightly modifying images or videos in order to make them appear different to the computer but identical to human eyes. 8chan, as it happens, is largely populated by computer-savvy people who have self-organized to perpetrate exactly those kinds of tricks.
The primary sources of content are only part of the problem. Long after the deed, YouTube users have bolstered conspiracy theories about murders, successfully replacing truth with lies among broad populations of users who might not even know they are being deceived. Even stock-photo providers are licensing stills from the New Zealand shooter’s video; a Reuters image that shows the perpetrator wielding his rifle as he enters the mosque is simply credited, “Social media.”
Interpreting real motives is difficult on social
The video is just the tip of the iceberg. Many smaller and less obviously inflamed messages have no hope of being found, isolated, and removed by technology services. The shooter praised Donald Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity” and incited the conservative commentator Candace Owens, who took the bait on Twitter in a post that got retweeted thousands of times by the morning after the attack. The shooter’s forum posts and video are littered with memes and inside references that bear special meaning within certain communities on 8chan, 4chan, Reddit, and other corners of the internet, offering tempting receptors for consumption and further spread.
Perhaps worst of all, the forum posts, the manifesto, and even the shooting itself might not have been carried out with the purpose that a literal read of their contents suggests. At the first glance, it seems impossible to deny that this terrorist act was motivated by white-extremist hatred, an animosity that authorities like the FBI expert and the Facebook officials would want to snuff out before it spreads.
But 8chan is notorious for users with an ironic and rude behaviour under the shades of anonymity.They use humor, memes and urban slang to promote chaos and divisive rhetoric. As the internet separates images from context and action from intention, and then spreads those messages quickly among billions of people scattered all around the globe.
That structure makes it impossible to even know what individuals like Tarrant “really mean” by their words and actions. As it spreads, social-media content neuters earnest purpose entirely, putting it on the same level as anarchic randomness. What a message means collapses into how it gets used and interpreted. For 8chan trolls, any ideology might be as good as any other, so long as it produces chaos.
We all have a role to play
It’s easy to say that technology companies can do better. They can, and they should. But ultimately, content moderation is not the solution by itself. The problem is the media ecosystem they have created. The only surprise is that anyone would still be surprised that social media produce this tragic abyss, for this is what social media are supposed to do, what they were designed to do: spread the images and messages that accelerate interest and invoke raw emotions, without check, and absent concern for their consequences.
We hope that social media companies get better at filtering out violent content and explore alternative business models, and governments think critically about cyber laws that protect both people and speech. But until they do we should reflect on our own behavior too. As news outlets, we shape the narrative through our informed perspectives which makes it imperative to publish legitimate & authentic content. Let’s as users too make a choice of liking and sharing content on social platforms. Let’s consider how our activities could contribute to an overall spectacle society that might inspire future perpetrator-produced videos of such gruesome crime – and act accordingly. In this era of social spectacle, we all have a role to play in ensuring that terrorists aren’t rewarded for their crimes with our clicks and shares.