March 15, 2019, is a day New Zealanders and the world will never forget. It was the daya crazy gunman, Brenton Tarrant, mercilessly shot and killed 50 innocent people in a Christchurch mosque during Friday prayers.
This horrifying act by the killer, fully premeditated and planned to the nth degree (including publishing a 60+ page manifesto justifying the act and live-streaming action for over 17 minutes on Facebook), is unique in its cowardice and hatred, as most terror acts are. Not even the most radical person could come close to condoning such an act.
But New Zealand’s actions afterward to limit the spread of hateful ideas — although noble in intent — border on the chilling. If I were in New Zealand today, I could be arrested and put in jail for mentioning the killer’s name. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has publicly said that she does not want the suspect to gain global notoriety — it’s better to utter the names of the victims instead, she said. And prosecutors are quietly pursuing a New Zealand human rights law, which forbids dissemination or possession of material depicting extreme violence and terrorism.
Two people have been arrested for sharing the video via social media. The New York Times reports that a teenager, whose name has not been released, was denied bail over charges that he had posted a photograph of Al Noor Mosque, one of the two that were attacked, a week before the shootings, with the caption “target acquired.” He was also charged with reposting the video. He could spend as many as 14 years in jail if found guilty.
It is a crime in New Zealand to possess a copy of the video on your phone or computer hard drive. It’s illegal to have a copy of the manifesto, even if someone sent it to you and you inadvertently saved a copy.
Social media platforms
The government is also going after Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms, holding them responsible for dissemination. In parliament, the PM said: “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman.”
New Zealand actually has a senior government official whose title is Chief Censor. According to media reports, the Censor Office has asked Facebook for the names of others who have shared the killer’s videos. The New Zealand Herald reports that some Kiwis have lost their jobs for sharing the video with co-workers or viewing it at work. Another woman has been arrested on suspicion of inciting racial disharmony after a hateful message was posted to her Facebook page, inviting a fine as high as US$5,000.
If all of this reminds you of the religious police in West Asian countries — or secret police in despot dictatorships — who decide what behaviour on the street is consistent with that which the government approves of, you’re not alone.
There are so many problems with all the government’s words and actions that I don’t even know where to start. While most people love to hate social media when these horrible things happen, one must be thankful to such platforms for bringing about lasting, positive change in society. The Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement, and uprisings worldwide against despots would never have been possible if people could not access or disseminate material at warp speed.
Journalists and police cannot be everywhere but people with cellphones and access to the internet are. When an event happens, citizen journalists have brought history to the world by capturing live shots and immediately posting them on social media. Even if the original images are somehow caught and brought down, the power of something going viral restores the capture and thus, history.
In the Christchurch shooting, only about 200 people supposedly watched the live stream. But at least one person recorded the stream and uploaded it on social media sites. People rapidly duplicated the video and, within an hour, millions of copies had spread. No newsroom could have reported on history that fast.
Horrors of the Holocaust, the gulags
Six million people died during the Holocaust over a period of 12 years. Millions were mercilessly killed in the Russian gulags under Stalin. It’s hard to imagine that these abominable scars in human history would have even occurred if we had people uploading live clips to social media the first time someone was mercilessly shot or gassed.
Since hate crime is a hate crime, why hasn’t the New Zealand Prime Minister given orders to ban the chilling videos of 9-11 which are all over YouTube? Nearly 4,000 innocent people died on that day and the repercussions from that attack changed the world forever. There have been documentaries and Hollywood movies produced since then. Would PM Ardern ban these too?
It’s a crime in New Zealand to mention the Christchurch killer’s name. Would the PM then also make it illegal to mention the names of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Osama bin Laden? Would she tear out pages from the history textbooks of New Zealand’s school-children?
The PM has become a media darling but her statements are chilling. Her words would have invited the wrath of the world’s press had they come from a dictator, but because she represents a Commonwealth democracy, she is being given a loving, free pass.
Content created by the people
Facebook and YouTube are not publishers, Ma’am Prime Minister. A publisher, like a TV station or a movie studio, exerts full control over every aspect of the creation and distribution of content. The elegant simplicity of social media sites is that the content is created by the world’s citizens. The platforms simply distribute content and try extremely hard to bring down harmful messages. They have invested millions of dollars in AI and machine learning technologies to detect and flag bad videos but it’s sometimes hard to keep up the pace of such monitoring when videos go viral.
If the PM had her way, the social media sites could be held criminally responsible for allowing harmful content on their platforms. New Zealand has a population of 4.1 million, mostly in a few cities like Auckland and Christchurch. Facebook has a user base of 2 billion spread all over the world. Nearly 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every day and 300 hours of video are uploaded each minute. Does the PM even understand the scale of what she is talking about?
While everyone agrees with her that the Christchurch killings were motivated by hatred and despicable, how exactly do the platforms decide in the future what is harmful or hate-filled? Would the PM have allowed dissemination of a video if only one person was killed? Or should the number be set higher? And who determines this? What if someone disagrees with this number or the definition?
These are legitimate questions in most parts of the world but not in white-dominated New Zealand. In the US, many African Americans feel that white police officers apply disproportionate force when dealing with young blacks, and this led to the Black Lives Matter protest. But police officers feel differently, saying that their arduous duties call for split-second action and this has led to the Police Lives Matter movement.
Learning from history
The beauty of history is that we all learn from it. The PM’s assumption that every person who shared or watched the Christchurch video also shares the feelings of the killer, in whatever small proportion, is nonsense. People may have watched it as an item of news; others because the clip was forwarded to them; and most, for simply how cruel some humans can be in the taking of innocent lives. Indeed, most would probably have stopped watching the video, unable to view it past the first few minutes.
All of this comes down to speech and the freedoms accorded to it in a modern democracy. As Larry Flynt said, “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect speech you like; it protects speech you don't like.” Sound advice that PM Ardern may well want to heed.