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The mass shooting in New Zealand was designed to spread on social media

The mass shooting in New Zealand was designed to spread on social media


Killing in the age of SEO

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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 are 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 message board, included links to a manifesto and a Facebook page where the poster — an alleged shooter — said a live stream of the attack would be broadcast. Facebook has removed the page and the video, but the video had already traveled.

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 YouTube channel, T-Series.

Both the video and the manifesto are designed to maximize attention

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 shootings and their message of hate. But there is no way to discuss the bizarre internet dynamics around them without also telling people that they 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 killings — 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.

Mass shootings are meant to get people’s attention

The shooter or shooters want to stay in the news. The references to other white supremacist killers 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 killings live-streamed from Christchurch. The original live stream 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 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 shootings 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 savvier 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 killings.