Robust legislation required to curb social media hate

Robust legislation required to curb social media hate

Afghan refugee and local resident Abdul Aziz (L), 48, is greeted by a man who came to thank him for his bravery in Christchurch on March 17, 2019, two days after he chased the gunman. (File/AFP)

In the first 24 hours after the Christchurch mosques massacre, Facebook removed 1.5 million videos of the attack that killed 50 Muslims. Some uploads were watched more than 20,000 times. 

The killer clearly had a major online presence, linked to so many extremist groups and individuals. He initially used the Live4 app to livestream on Facebook from his helmet-mounted camera, having posted around 60 links in the two days prior to the massacre. 

Who knows how many people watched this gore-infested atrocity, this orgy of death. Some are just curious but, worryingly, many are disciples. On the gaming platform Steam, more than 100 users paid tributes to the killer. None of this was helped one iota when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey used the horror video at a campaign rally. Whipping up hatred for political self-interest is shameful. 

Far-right violence and extremism is now truly global. This is due to a combination of factors, of which social media is just one.

The white supremacists have gathered support, spread hate and portrayed malicious conspiracies and lies as truth largely free from the systematic attention this deserves. Their actions are not the isolated cases of a few crazies. White supremacist violence is linked to at least 50 deaths in 2018 in the US alone. All of these people should have been closely monitored, just as Muslim extremists are. They are a threat to us all, but in particular Muslims, Jews and anyone who does not conform to their toxic worldview. Freedom of expression should not be a license for freedom to hate.

White supremacism has mainstream access in the media and in political circles. So-called populist politicians have fed off this far-right surge. The killer was a fan of Donald Trump. Many believe the US president has failed to speak out in the necessary cold, clear terms against this movement, largely because he relies on their support. Trump has consistently demanded everyone refer to “radical Islamic terrorism,” but he does not call for references to “white supremacist terrorism.” 

But Trump is far from alone, or even the first. Across Europe, far-right and neo-Nazi groups proliferate, egged on by the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, to name just a few.

Freedom of expression should not be a license for freedom to hate 

Chris Doyle

The mainstream media has turned a blind eye to far-right extremism and Islamophobia and, on occasions, encouraged it. Anti-Muslim and far-right commentators abound. Fox News in the US is a cesspool of such views. One week before the massacre, host Jeanine Pirro questioned on her show whether Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was loyal to the constitution of the US or to Sharia law merely because she wore the veil. In the UK, websites of tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and The Sun hosted segments of the massacre video. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and The Sun, tweeted in 2015 that until Muslims deal with the “jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” The Daily Mail even had a link to the attacker’s racist manifesto. One British commentator, who appears regularly on the BBC and has a column in the Times, reacted to the massacre by claiming that Islamophobia is “invented.” Sky News Australia also ran bits of the video. 

More subtle trends relate to how much of the coverage focused on the killer, not the victims. The Daily Mirror had a front cover with a picture of the attacker as a young boy with the headline: “Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer.” The angels the readers should be learning about are the brave heroes who helped save people and subdue the murderer, many of them, yes, Muslim. 

Social media amplifies mainstream content and adds its own. It helps weaponize language and images. It did this for pornographers, for organized crime, Al-Qaeda and Daesh, and is doing the same for neo-Nazis. 

So what can be done? 

Resources must be devoted to tackling the threat of far-right extremism. Further massacres will occur, some inspired by Christchurch, just as the killer was inspired by Anders Breivik. Places of worship must be protected, whether mosque, synagogue or church.

The mainstream media also has to cleanse the Augean stables of those who broadcast hate. Anti-Muslim comments must be treated no differently to other forms of discrimination. Trying to increase the number of viewers and readers on the back of sensationalist hatemongering is grotesque. But the media also has to look at how it can ensure a more rounded, accurate portrayal of Muslims and Muslim issues. Having more Muslim voices in the media would help. 

Robust legislation is required on social media, given its consistent failure to police itself. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted about Google, Facebook and Twitter: “You really need to do more to stop violent extremism being promoted on your platforms. Take some ownership. Enough is enough.” What he did not outline is what he will actually do about this to protect the public. 

Social media companies will have to invest in improving their artificial intelligence to automatically detect extremist material more effectively. Mark Zuckerberg and other CEOs of major tech companies have to accept legislative scrutiny and not, as he did, refuse to appear in front of the British parliamentary committee on the issue. 

All the messages of horror and outrage will mean nothing unless real and lasting change is now brought about. Let’s see if any of the politicians saying the right things today will do the right things tomorrow. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view