March 15, 2019 – Yesterday, in New Zealand, an Australian man in his late twenties logged on Twitter and 8chan, an online message board, to post photos of ammunition and a far-right manifesto. He also linked to a Facebook page, where he promised that he would livestream an impending mass shooting. The man then relayed video, lasting 17 minutes, as he entered a mosque and opened fire. It was one of two simultaneous mosque attacks in Christchurch, a city on the east coast of New Zealand’s south island. The attackers killed 49 worshippers and wounded at least 48, some of whom are in a critical condition. Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, confirmed that a citizen of his country had been arrested. Morrison described the suspect as an extremist right-wing terrorist.
In the hours after the attacks, the video and manifesto spread widely across social media: as The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell tweeted, the massacre “was livestreamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react.” Harwell noted that, on Reddit, users narrated the video in a forum called “watchpeopledie.” When the platforms did start to take the content down—for example, by deleting accounts thought to be linked to the gunman—it swiftly appeared elsewhere. YouTube and Twitter told BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac that they were working to remove the video. Mac reported that it was still easy to find the video, or versions of it, on both those platforms—including in a post by a verified Twitter account with nearly 700,000 followers. According to Sheera Frenkel and Daniel Victor, of The New York Times, some users cropped the video and screenshotted the manifesto, edits known to circumnavigate platforms’ automated moderation systems.
It is highly concerning that these materials were able to spread so quickly on social media. Some news organizations chose to boost the signal of the hateful messages. In Australia, several outlets published (non-graphic) parts of the video—Sky News Australia looped footage from it on television—despite the police and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, asking them not to. In the UK, the websites of The Sun and The Daily Mail embedded gifs made from the video at the tops of their homepages. And major outlets around the world summarized, quoted from, and even hosted the manifesto.
Seeking to understand the motives of a mass murderer seems a legitimate journalistic enterprise, particularly when the killer claims to have been motivated by ideology. As J.M. Berger wrote recently for The Atlantic, however, sharing far-right manifestos can amplify their impact and inspire copycats. (Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist discussed by Berger, was cited in the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter.) Several prominent journalists who cover internet culture warned that the political references in the Christchurch manifesto are easy to misinterpret. “I would encourage my colleagues to be extraordinarily cautious in tying the Christchurch shooter to a narrative of online radicalization,” BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein tweeted. “Some of the claims in his manifesto are obviously sarcastic and seem if anything aimed at contradicting such an interpretation.” Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at the Times, called the manifesto “a minefield. I am Very Online and I don’t feel 100 percent certain about what’s genuine and what’s just trolling/posting/media-baiting.”
Clearly, there is much to be said about Islamophobia, online radicalization, white supremacy, far-right terrorism, and the links between them. Particularly since Charlottesville, that nexus has spawned an entire beat in the US; the New Zealand attacks are a tragic reminder that its interest crosses borders. Rather than sensationalize or spread misinformation, however, news outlets would do well, for now, to center the victims of this appalling massacre.