The Christchurch mosque massacre on March 15th was felt viscerally both in New Zealand and across the globe. The gunman, who has been charged with 50 counts of murder, was an Australian born white supremacist who used social media to spread a radical, far right ideology of hatred and Islamophobia.
The attacker’s radical white nationalist views were a product of online extremism, highlighting the manner in which neo-Nazi ideologies are increasingly spreading through the dark corners of the internet, to all areas of the globe.
Shortly before the attack, the killer posted a link to a rambling 87 page “manifesto” filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate speech. The document was strategically filled with references to other attacks so that the killers racist narrative would resonate as far as possible. It recalled previous white nationalists such as Anders Breivik, the far right terrorist who killed 77 people in the 2011 mass shooting in Norway.
Yet the features of the so-called manifesto are distinctive. It is filled with references not only to white nationalist movements and conspiracies, but also demonstrates a detailed knowledge of neo-Nazi meme culture and its ability to carry cultural messages of bigotry and prejudice. This was a mass shooting perpetrated by an internet native, conceived and produced for an extremist audience.
Facebook and other social media platforms have faced heavy criticism for failing to provide an adequate response to the attack, and for failing to regulate the spread of hate speech and misinformation across their platforms.
The atrocity was livestreamed by the killer on Facebook for 17 horrifying minutes. The video was then reposted on Facebook 1.5 million times in 24 hours, as well as across Twitter and YouTube.
Facebook’s staggering capacity for the dissemination of information is a feature of the platform, not a bug. This business model, along with the tech company’s lack of regulation, was manipulated by the shooter to spread terror into the hearts and minds of onlookers.
This failure has highlighted Silicon Valley’s inability to adequately regulate their own platforms, crystallising concerns that both the public and private sector have failed to comprehend the power of social media in spreading Islamophobic content.
The combination of borderless digital technology and business models built around monetising “engagement” have created billions of dollars for big tech, but the implications of this largely unregulated disruption to society are now clear for all to see. How many livestreamed atrocities will it take before democratic governments take meaningful regulatory action?
While New Zealanders continue to process the horror of this traumatic attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for the manner in which she has responded to the atrocity.
Arden issued the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of hatred perpetrated by the attacker, emphasising that bigotry and racism are not welcome on the shores of the pacific nation.
“You may have chosen us,” said Ardern of the killer, her voice filled with anger. “But we utterly reject and condemn you”.
“The answer lies in our humanity” Arden stated. “We each hold the power – in our words, in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of the 15th of March”.
Although intolerance, prejudice and ignorance towards cultural diversity can never be entirely eliminated from society, the manner in which Ardern has confronted the massacre has set a global standard for national leaders to follow.
Addressing parliament in Wellington, Ardern urged the public to never speak the name of the gunman, instead asking the public to speak the names of the victims lost in the attack instead.
“I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give nothing – not even his name”.
Parliament has also taken swift action to enforce tighter gun control in the aftermath of the shooting. Six days after the attack the government moved swiftly to ban assault weapons.
“Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country” Ardern said. The move contrasts sharply to the decades of inaction on gun regulation in the United States.
The massacre has also promoted a broader reflection on diversity across New Zealand society. The Crusaders, a celebrated and successful rugby franchise are now also considering a name change, with many now questioning if the name of the Christchurch based club is offensive.
The club’s management and members of the Muslim community have noted that many people find the association with the Muslim Crusades of the Middle Ages inappropriate following the use of the gunman’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The attack has also prompted a discussion in New Zealand surrounding the current hate speech laws, with moves being made to strengthen minority rights in order to take every possible precaution to prevent further attacks.
We can only hope that social media platforms will also recognise the immediate need for regulation and take meaningful steps to halt the spread of extremist ideologies across their platforms.