How to Talk About the New Zealand Massacre: More Sunlight, Less Oxygen
Even more than its predecessors, the massacre in New Zealand feels like the confluence of strands of our times: on March 15th, a gunman with an AR-15 killed forty-nine people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, the worst massacre in New Zealand’s history. It was a poisonously global moment: the attacker broadcast the massacre live on Facebook, and he posted a so-called manifesto to Twitter, regurgitating neo-Nazi in-jokes and immigration–conspiracy theories about “birthrates” and “white genocide.” His particulars merit little more attention than that.
By now, we know to restrain our instinct to recirculate, and perversely glamourize, the details. We know to deprive the virulent corners of modern life of the “oxygen of amplification,” in the words of Whitney Phillips, of the Data & Society Research Institute, who is the author of a valuable report on the interplay between extremists, technology, and journalism. In a list of best practices, Phillips reminds reporters to treat violent language and memes as “inherently contagious” and to avoid highlighting “objectively false” ideas unless they are prominently undermined.
It is good advice, but it can also be misused. As news spread of the gunman’s motives, Donald Trump, Jr., who is not known for his powers of restraint, expressed a sudden desire not to give the “NZ shooter what he wants.” He tweeted, “Don’t speak his name don’t show the footage. Seems that most agree on that. The questions is can the media do what’s right and pass up the ratings they’ll get by doing the opposite? I fear we all know the answer unfortunately.”
Don, Jr.,’s newfound sympathy for decorum most likely owes less to a nuanced theory of violence and publicity than to the shameful reality that the New Zealand killer hailed his father, President Donald Trump, as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” In the Oval Office, a few hours later, the President was asked if he considers white nationalism a rising threat. “I don’t, really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” Trump called the incident “a terrible thing.” He was speaking, not incidentally, during a ceremony in which he vetoed an attempt to block his use of emergency funds to build a border wall. He complained, as ever, about an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.
The New Zealand killer takes his place in the cracked pantheon of violent, Trump-admiring extremists: beside the gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, who blamed Jews for resettling refugees and immigrants, whom Trump vilifies as the center of his politics; beside the van-dweller in Miami who found purpose amid the throngs of Trump rallies and set about sending pipe bombs to George Soros, journalists, and Democrats. The New Zealand killer did not exact his violence in America, but he would be at home in our statistics: in the past decade, seventy-three per cent of all American extremist-related killings have come from the right wing, compared to twenty-three per cent from Salafi jihadism and three per cent from the left wing, according to the Soufan Center, which studies global security.
Pointing out those patterns does not feed oxygen to the sources; it subjects them to the disinfecting power of sunlight. We can only have an honest analysis of the sources of this violence if we understand how it grows and spreads. That applies not only to the role of journalism but also to the role of technology. Whenever a killer relies, as he did in this case, on the Internet to amplify the effects of his terror, some inevitably defend social media as no better and no worse than the humanity that uses it. Don’t blame the hammer, we are told; blame the hand. At best, that is a deflection. One does not have to be a Luddite to believe that the worst of social media is not a mirror image of us; it is a grotesque distortion, a funhouse mirror that bulges and squeezes and disfigures us in ways that mock our humanity instead of reinforcing it.
Once again, Facebook finds itself scrambling to explain how it will prevent its creations from being used for harm. When I interviewed a range of Facebook executives last year, several of them touted the use of artificial intelligence and human moderators to prevent the misuse of Facebook Live. Alex Schultz, a longtime Facebook staffer, told me that, to detect instances of suicide or murder on Facebook Live, the company created a system that looks for sudden spikes in attention—“by number of people viewing, by the rate at which those impressions are going up, by the percentage of sad reactions versus likes, by the number of people saying, ‘Oh, my God’ down in the comments.” He said, “Then you need artificial intelligence to be able to read those comments, to get the signal out so you can rank it.” In this case, the rampage was broadcast by a head-mounted camera for a hideous seventeen minutes. It stopped only after Facebook was alerted by New Zealand police. In a statement, Mia Garlick, of Facebook New Zealand, said, “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act. New Zealand Police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video.”
By then, archives of the video were everywhere. Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative reporter at the Observer, tweeted, “I may have reached my moment of total despair. The full video is all over YouTube. All over Facebook.” She pointed to a version that had been watched twenty-three thousand times on Facebook in one hour. “And 1000s out there,” she wrote.
For Facebook, the New Zealand massacre is a gruesome measure of the social-media platform’s power and its limitations. The attack struck just as the company is attempting to refashion itself to focus on small-scale, encrypted conversations. But that new focus will expand alongside the main news feed of public conversation; it will not replace the public forum. And so the peril remains. The company did not create the root cause—what the scholar Thomas Rid calls a “violent transnational neo-fascist ideology”—but the technology has multiplied its force to a degree that is almost beyond measure.
To allow the killer to monopolize the final image of this moment would be a mistake. Instead, it is worth pausing to absorb the words and deeds of another person whose image raced around the world on social media in the hours after the New Zealand attack: Jill Keats, who is sixty-six, was driving to the mall when she heard what she thought were firecrackers. Then, people started collapsing. “One fell just to the left of my car and one fell to the right,” she told a reporter.
Keats, who has a silver ponytail and was wearing a gray cardigan, ducked to avoid gunfire. Then she loaded a wounded man into her car to protect him, and, with the help of another bystander, she compressed his wounds to stanch the bleeding.
“He was trying to ring his wife, and I managed to get it and I answered the phone and I said to her, ‘Your husband’s been shot outside the mosque.’ I said, and ‘Don’t come here to Dean’s Ave, you won’t get through—but please go to a hospital and wait for him.’ Then I kept talking to him and telling him she was at the hospital waiting and he wasn’t to give up. Here we just kept pressure on him and did the best we could for him until we could get him some help.”
Her voice cracking, she went on, “In the meantime, the poor guy across the road passed away.” She paused. “I never thought in my life I would live to see something like this. Not in New Zealand.”
The reporter tried to console her. “We really commend you for what you did. You’re really a hero.”
“No, I’m not,” Jill Keats said. “No, you just do what you do at the time. I wish I could’ve done more.”