Seventeen minutes. That’s how long a terrorist in New Zealand was able to livestream his horrific acts on Facebook. 50 lives were lost in the attack on two New Zealand mosques and 50 more were injured. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are still struggling to halt the spread of the footage in the aftermath of the attack. This begs the question: Is social media ushering in a new age of terrorism?
Radical ideologies have been present online nearly since the inception of the world-wide web. A notable example was a site called Stormfront: a forum created in 1996 by former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Don Black. The site served as an echo chamber for white supremacist ideals until its eventual closure in 2017. Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 79 members of the Workers Youth League in Norway, was a notable frequenter of the site.
In his “manifesto,” the suspect in the New Zealand attacks claims to have drawn inspiration from Breivik, and may even have been in contact with him at one point in time. The problem with social media and modern methods of online interaction stem from the major prevalence of little-held ideologies online.
Before the age of Facebook and Twitter, a racist man in Middle America was just that—a single racist man. His toxic views would be kept in check by the reality of the outside world, and not be allowed to fester and grow. Nowadays such a man can simply type his views into Google and connect with thousands who share his toxic ideology and skewed view of the world. This only further validates his radical viewpoint.
The echo chamber legitimizes irrational fears held by potentially dangerous individuals, until one day they decide to solve “the problem” their own way. In the case of the recent New Zealand attacks, the suspect says it was an act of revenge for Islamic terrorism attacks in Western Europe.
I wish I could offer a solution to the plight of evil further bred online, but the sad reality is that there is no good way to stop such hate groups from forming. Just as social communities form online around hiking and sports and fashion, so do those built on hate and fear and violence.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all have plans to actively counteract dangerous ideologies, but often cast too wide a net in their efforts. This leaves moderate opinion holders cast out with the rest. As history has proven long before social media, censorship only serves to further radicalize dangerous ideas. Maybe the only solution is us not listening. We need to stop giving credence by clicks to those who use violence or violent ideas to get attention – before more tragic events take place.