Sharing offensive material should be a hate crime everywhere

New Zealand conviction sends the strongest possible message of the responsibility of those posting online

FILE PHOTO: People comfort each other before the Friday prayers at Hagley Park outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
Powered by automated translation

In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, in which 51 people were killed by a gunman in New Zealand during Friday prayers and the footage livestreamed on Facebook, few can have failed to feel revulsion and shock at the attack.

Except for Philip Arps, a man who had previously left a pig's head at one of the mosques targeted in the shooting. Arps sent the video of the March attack to 30 associates and even asked a friend to modify it by adding crosshairs and a kill count. His 21-month jail sentence for his "unrepentant views" and for distributing objectionable material sends the strongest possible message to those who would perpetuate racism and hate crime by disseminating messages on social media. It also serves a reminder of the responsibility carried by everyone who posts online. It is not simply enough for those who create content to act responsibly; those who share posts also have a duty of care not to spread hate. The action of a few thoughtless seconds can carry huge repercussions. In Arps's case, it was extreme content but his conviction should give pause for thought for anyone minded to forward material, however seemingly innocuous. Anything which contains verbal or physical abuse or even insults can cause harm.

As we increasingly live online and work out boundaries and legislation for the new arenas in which we exist, these issues are going to become ever more relevant. In Arps's case, the hate crime was clear-cut. Yet even then, it required New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature to classify the video he shared as objectionable before he could be prosecuted. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has joined forces with her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in a bid to get tech companies and governments crack down on the use of social media for terrorist purposes. New Zealand is also reviewing its hate crime laws, which could see the creation of new legislation. It is worth remembering this is not simply New Zealand's problem but an issue we all face as we increasingly inhabit digital town squares. The way we behave and the things we say matter. Tech companies, authorities and users must all play a part in ensuring those forums remain sacrosanct and unthreatening for everyone.

An armed police officer stands guard outside the Al Noor mosque during Friday prayers in Christchurch on May 3, 2019, ahead of the holy month of Ramadan. The death toll from the Christchurch mosque attacks has risen to 51 after a 46-year-old Turkish man succumbed to injuries sustained in the March 15 shootings, the New Zealand prime minister said on May 3. / AFP / Sanka VIDANAGAMA
An armed police officer stands guard outside the Al Noor mosque during Friday prayers in Christchurch. Sanka Vidanagama / AFP