Christchurch terrorist attack report highlights failings by social media giants

Analysts examining the findings of the Royal Commission report condemn failings by YouTube and Facebook

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 08: Imam Gamal Fouda of Al Noor Mosque (C) speaks to the media during a press conference at Al Noor Mosque on December 08, 2020 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Royal Commission report into the 2019 terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques will be released on Tuesday 8 December.  51 people were killed after a man opened fire at Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch on Friday, 15 March 2019. The Australian gunman was sentenced to life in prison without parole after being found guilty of 92 charges relating to what was New Zealand's worst mass shooting in history. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

An 800-page inquiry into the March 2019 Christchurch mosque attack, which claimed the lives of 51 Muslim worshippers, sheds light on the murky online world of far-right extremists.

Analysing the report's findings, experts on online radical movements claim that social media giants, such as YouTube, have not done enough to deny a platform for fringe movements, of the kind to which terrorist Brenton Tarrant subscribed. Tarrant was jailed for life, with no possibility of parole.

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The shooter had donated to many far-right content creators have channels that remain online

Andrew Fleming, an Australian writer and expert on the radical right, told The National that it was difficult to stamp out radicalisation, but "what you can do is limit the growth of the milieu out of which he emerged ... by doing so, you limit the number of future Tarrants".

“I think if you adopt a perspective which locates figures like the Christchurch killer within a series of expanding circles, the task becomes limiting the growth of far-right propagandists [by] removing the social licence granted by corporate social media, to provide them a platform.”

Mr Fleming said that some "more mainstream circles in the media, publishing and politics" added fuel to the radical right's fire by advancing "a version of [the] same [narrative], albeit almost invariably through the use of coded language".

Christchurch-based essayist Byron Clark  said the Royal Commission report "confirmed what was already suspected, that the shooter had undergone his radicalisation online".

“The fact he cited YouTube as a significant source of information and inspiration is a damning indictment on the company, who for too long has provided a platform for disinformation and hateful rhetoric.

“While YouTube have banned, for example, Stefan Molyneux, who the report shows the shooter had donated to, many far-right content creators have channels that remain online,” he said.

Mr Clark said that New Zealand-based far-right video makers "continued to fly under the radar" despite the attack.

“A month before the attack, a man uploaded a video filmed in Christchurch's Cathedral Square, just a short walk from Al Noor Mosque, calling on people to ‘be proud of doing your bit to save your country from Islamisation’. YouTube has left that video online despite numerous reports.”

FILE - In this March 23, 2019 file photo, worshippers prepare to enter the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. A comprehensive report released Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 into the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in which 51 Muslim worshippers were slaughtered sheds new light on how the gunman was able to elude detection by authorities as he planned out his attack. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

“While the shooter acted alone, the radicalisation story is one that I'm sure we'll hear again. We've already had reports of a foiled school shooting by a young man who claimed to be a Nazi and had shared pictures of the March 15 shooter online, and an active-duty soldier who was a leader of a far-right group is facing court martial for espionage and other charges.

"Social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook need to acknowledge their role in bringing about this situation, and then tell the public what they will do to help prevent it from happening again.”

An obscure threat

The inquiry found that the “only information that directly referred to the terrorist attack was an email the individual sent to the Parliamentary Service (as well as politicians, media outlets and individual journalists) just eight minutes before the terrorist attack began”.

“The critical information about the attack (in terms of the location) was within a 74-page manifesto ... it took some minutes for the Parliamentary Service to open the email, read and make sense of the manifesto and then pass the details on to New Zealand Police. By then the terrorist attack had just started.”

The report said that in 2016, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service identified that establishing an understanding of emerging non-Islamist terrorism threats, “was a goal ... this work eventually began in May 2018, with one of the projects focused on developing an understanding of right-wing extremism in New Zealand ... work on this was not complete when the terrorist attack occurred”.

The report said the intelligence function of New Zealand Police “had degraded and from 2015 was not carrying out strategic terrorism threat assessments” and concluded “there was an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism”.

Given these factors, the report concluded that security services would have had “no plausible way” of detecting Tarrant’s intentions, “except by chance”.

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