The horrific shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was designed from the start to get attention — leveraging social media to make sure as many people as possible would hear about the deaths and the hate underpinning them. Officials have reported a “significant” number of people dead from attacks at two mosques. Several people have been arrested so far. New Zealand police have told people to avoid mosques, and told mosques to “shut their doors.”
A 17-minute video that seemed to show the shooting was posted to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. A post on 8chan, a messageboard, included links to a manifesto and a Facebook page where the poster — an alleged shooter — said a livestream of the attack would be broadcast. Facebook has removed the page and the video, but the video had already traveled.
The New Zealand 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.
— Drew Harwell (@drewharwell) March 15, 2019
Both the video and the manifesto are designed to maximize attention. Early in the video, the shooter says “Remember, lads, subscribe to Pewdiepie,” a reference to popular YouTuber Felix Kjellberg, who has a history of promoting anti-Semitism. Kjellberg’s channel has the most subscribers on YouTube, at 89 million, and he has been attempting to recruit more so that he won’t be overtaken by another YouTuber, T-Series.
A reference to this contest forces Kjellberg to disavow the shootings, which is exactly what he did. “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person,” Kjellberg said to his 17 million followers on Twitter. Kjellberg’s position is unenviable; if he hadn’t disavowed the shootings immediately, it’s possible someone would have suggested his channel was somehow an inspiration to the killer or killers. But it’s also clear that if any of his many followers had missed the shootings, they were now aware of them.
This Verge article will also make people aware of the mass murder and its message of hate. But there is no way to discuss the bizarre internet dynamics around it without also telling people it happened. I am sympathetic to Kjellberg precisely because I am in the same position.
The manifesto linked to the shooting is decidedly racist. Early on, it references “white genocide,” a Neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that white people are being replaced, and the 14 words, a white supremacist slogan. It also professes admiration for other white supremacist killers. The racism itself is sincere — it did, after all, lead to mass murder — but other parts of the manifesto seem to contain buzzwords meant to galvanize its spread.
For instance, though the author of the manifesto claims to be Australian — and one person in custody is Australian-born — the document contains multiple references to the Second Amendment of the US constitution. Mass shootings in America have led to heated debate about gun laws, with proponents of the Second Amendment arguing that gun control is unconstitutional.
The manifesto, which is 73 pages long, tends toward name-dropping. It mentions Candace Owens, an American conservative pundit, as well as the video games Fortnite and Spyro the Dragon. These references seem geared toward creating certain kinds of narratives in the media that will keep the terrorism in the news.
And the shooter or shooters want to stay in the news. The references to other white supremacist murderers are the giveaway. These high-profile killings are meant to frighten innocent people, and recruit other white supremacists; without attention, the crimes are meaningless to the people who committed them.
Mass shootings, generally, are meant to get people’s attention. Social media has weakened or destroyed many of the gatekeepers that shield the general public from exposure to this kind of violence. Before the internet, it was unusual for anyone besides the police and the media to receive these kinds of materials. Now, it’s possible for them to be passed around quickly, reaching a broad audience
In 2015, a shooter in Bridgewater, Virginia killed his victims on live television, and uploaded the video to Twitter and Facebook. In order to attract your attention, both platforms default to autoplaying videos — a default that caters to advertisers. After that shooting, nothing changed at either platform, and so users were exposed to atrocities again in the murders live-streamed from Christchurch. The original livestream would have been hard to prevent — but the reuploads, which autoplayed, disseminated the horror to a much larger audience.
The quick spread of both the video and the manifesto tells us also how inadequate moderation is on the internet, assuming moderation exists at all. The video has been popping up again and again on YouTube and Twitter, and people are figuring out ways to get around the companies’ filters. Mediafire and Mega host the manifesto; both are routinely used to post illicit material because they offer little to no oversight. It also appears on Scribd.
The person or people involved in the slaughter had copied the previous terrorist attacks on people of color. Mass murders may be contagious, and the more the people who perpetrate them are glamorized through media coverage, the more copycats there are likely to be. But it isn’t just mass media — TV, newspapers, and major websites — that we now have to worry about. As people become more savvy about how to seize attention through social media, the major platforms — Facebook, Twitter, and Google — will have to figure out how to stop the dissemination of these materials, as well as the praise or support of terrorist attacks like this one. Otherwise, they risk inspiring more copycat murders.