The Media Today

A mosque massacre is livestreamed

March 15, 2019

Yesterday, in New Zealand, an Australian man in his late twenties logged on Twitter and 8chan, an online message board, to post photos of ammunition and a far-right manifesto. He also linked to a Facebook page, where he promised that he would livestream an impending mass shooting. The man then relayed video, lasting 17 minutes, as he entered a mosque and opened fire. It was one of two simultaneous mosque attacks in Christchurch, a city on the east coast of New Zealand’s south island. The attackers killed 49 worshippers and wounded at least 48, some of whom are in a critical condition. Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, confirmed that a citizen of his country had been arrested. Morrison described the suspect as an extremist right-wing terrorist.

In the hours after the attacks, the video and manifesto spread widely across social media: as The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell tweeted, the 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.” Harwell noted that, on Reddit, users narrated the video in a forum called “watchpeopledie.” When the platforms did start to take the content down—for example, by deleting accounts thought to be linked to the gunman—it swiftly appeared elsewhere. YouTube and Twitter told BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac that they were working to remove the video. Mac reported that it was still easy to find the video, or versions of it, on both those platforms—including in a post by a verified Twitter account with nearly 700,000 followers. According to Sheera Frenkel and Daniel Victor, of The New York Times, some users cropped the video and screenshotted the manifesto, edits known to circumnavigate platforms’ automated moderation systems.

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It is highly concerning that these materials were able to spread so quickly on social media. Some news organizations chose to boost the signal of the hateful messages. In Australia, several outlets published (non-graphic) parts of the video—Sky News Australia looped footage from it on television—despite the police and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, asking them not to. In the UK, the websites of The Sun and The Daily Mail embedded gifs made from the video at the tops of their homepages. And major outlets around the world summarized, quoted from, and even hosted the manifesto.

Seeking to understand the motives of a mass murderer seems a legitimate journalistic enterprise, particularly when the killer claims to have been motivated by ideology. As J.M. Berger wrote recently for The Atlantic, however, sharing far-right manifestos can amplify their impact and inspire copycats. (Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist discussed by Berger, was cited in the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter.) Several prominent journalists who cover internet culture warned that the political references in the Christchurch manifesto are easy to misinterpret. “I would encourage my colleagues to be extraordinarily cautious in tying the Christchurch shooter to a narrative of online radicalization,” BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein tweeted. “Some of the claims in his manifesto are obviously sarcastic and seem if anything aimed at contradicting such an interpretation.” Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at the Times, called the manifesto “a minefield. I am Very Online and I don’t feel 100 percent certain about what’s genuine and what’s just trolling/posting/media-baiting.”

Clearly, there is much to be said about Islamophobia, online radicalization, white supremacy, far-right terrorism, and the links between them. Particularly since Charlottesville, that nexus has spawned an entire beat in the US; the New Zealand attacks are a tragic reminder that its interest crosses borders. Rather than sensationalize or spread misinformation, however, news outlets would do well, for now, to center the victims of this appalling massacre.

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Below, more on Christchurch and extremism:

  • The developing situation: The Guardian has live updates on the continuing fallout from the mosque attacks, including reactions from survivors, as well as from politicians and security forces as police around the world step up mosque security.
  • PewDiePie: In his video livestream, the Christchurch attacker told viewers to subscribe to PewDiePie, a controversial YouTube star whose past performances of anti-Semitic gestures, which he said were satirical, were co-opted on the far right. Felix Kjellberg, the Swedish man behind PewDiePie, said he was “absolutely sickened” to have been mentioned in the Christchurch video.
  • A dangerous spread: Berger’s Atlantic piece on the dangers of spreading far-right manifestos is worth reading in full. Writing in response to the case of Christopher Hasson, a US Coast Guard lieutenant who was recently charged with conspiring to murder journalists and politicians, Berger wrote that “journalists should report on manifestos, but they should mediate their propagandistic intent instead of blindly amplifying it.”
  • “The Trauma Floor”: It’s not just algorithms that moderate content on social media: real people do, too. In his Twitter thread on the Christchurch attacks, BuzzFeed’s Mac noted: “there are moderators sitting in some nondescript office building right now having to relive this incident over and over and over again for shit wages.” Last month, Casey Newton tracked the traumatic work of Facebook moderators in a piece for The Verge.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the White House’s official Twitter account shared a slick video mocking the Post’s reporting on the Mexican border. The video suggested that the paper had “fact-checked” itself and ultimately vindicated Trump’s repeated claim that there is a crisis to be resolved only through a state of emergency. (The Post had done no such thing.) Yesterday afternoon, 12 Republican senators voted with Democrats to block Trump’s state of emergency, ratifying legislation that already passed the House. Trump is expected to veto.
  • Beto O’Rourke is running for president. A Vanity Fair cover story by Joe Hagan effectively broke the news—the cover photo, which included O’Rourke’s truck and dog, was extremely similar to a 2007 Men’s Vogue cover of John Edwards; both stories were written by Hagan and shot by Annie Leibovitz—before O’Rourke made things official yesterday morning. As O’Rourke spoke in Iowa following his announcement, the cable networks all carried it live. This morning, Gayle King interviews O’Rourke for CBS.
  • Chris Cox, the long-serving engineer who designed Facebook’s News Feed and was rumored to be a possible successor to Mark Zuckerberg, abruptly left the company yesterday, apparently in protest of its recently announced shift in focus from public sharing to private communication. (Chris Daniels, the head of WhatsApp, is also quitting.) Newton, of The Verge, declared Cox’s departure “the end of the News Feed era.” On Galley, CJR’s Mathew Ingram weighed what the change means. Join the debate here.
  • In January, during a meeting at Davos, editors from outlets such as Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Financial Times agreed to found the One Free Press Coalition. Each month, the outlets involved will work with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation to identify and publish a list of the 10 “most urgent” threats to journalists around the world. The inaugural list includes Maria Ressa, the editor of Rappler who was arrested in the Philippines last month, Eman Al Nafjan, a blogger imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, and Pelin Unker, who was recently sentenced in Turkey for her work on ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation.
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick profiles David McCraw, the newsroom lawyer at the Times and the author of a new book, Truth in our Times. “More often than not, in McCraw’s view, the law should open doors to stories, not keep them shut.” McCraw tells McCormick: “If I start with, ‘How am I going to get this published?’ as opposed to, ‘How am I going to keep us from getting sued?’ I find we end up in a much better place.”
  • For The New Yorker, Masha Gessen imagines how she’d explain the college admissions scandal if she were a foreign correspondent addressing readers overseas. Situating this week’s criminal charges in their broader context would, Gessen writes, raise a question: “Why are these ridiculous crooks the only people who might be punished for perpetuating—by gaming—a bizarre, Byzantine, and profoundly unmeritocratic education system? Why is such a clearly and unabashedly immoral system legal at all?”
  • On Wednesday, Tennessee’s Supreme Court made a mixed ruling in a defamation case brought by Glenn Funk, the Nashville district attorney, against Phil Williams, an investigative reporter for WTVF, the Tennessean’s Adam Tamburin writes. The court broadened the state’s fair-report privilege—which shields reporting on official proceedings—to exclude considerations of motive, but also said journalists using that defense could be ordered to disclose the source of their reporting in court.
  • In 2017, Glenn Thrush, a star White House reporter for the Times, was put on leave, then reassigned to cover the social safety net, after an article in Vox accused him of sexually inappropriate conduct toward colleagues. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan observed that Thrush now appears to be back covering the Trump administration and Capitol Hill, without the Times having announced or clearly explained the change. A Times spokesperson told Merlan that Thrush is filling in during a colleague’s book leave.
  • And for CJR, Shelley Hepworth outlines how journalists in Australia followed the child sexual-abuse case against George Pell, the third most powerful clergyman in the global Catholic Church—despite being banned, until last month, from writing about it. Lucie Morris-Marr, who broke the original story of a police probe into Pell, says: “It’s been a real journey learning about what the role of a journalist is, who I am, and what my values are.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.