Facebook: Politicians threaten action over live-streamed terrorism

Facebook has faced criticism and parliamentary inquiries over its record in taking down harmful content

TOPSHOT - Messages written in chalk are seen on a pavement in Christchurch on March 18, 2019, after 50 worshippers were killed last week in two mosque attacks. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would be looking for answers from Facebook and other social media firms about how an attack that killed 50 mosque-goers was livestreamed on their platforms. / AFP / DAVID MOIR
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Facebook faced new questions about its record in removing extremist material after the New Zealand terrorist attack became the latest deadly incident which has left the social media giant under pressure from governments and facing the threat of regulation.

What happened in Christchurch?

The gunman accused of killing 50 people in Christchurch live-streamed the murders on Facebook using a head-mounted camera. The video was widely shared across a number of websites after the attack. Facebook said that was viewed fewer than 200 times during the live broadcast, but was watched about 4,000 times in total before it was taken down.

How did Facebook respond?

Senior officials said that nobody contacted the company during the 17 minutes of live streaming of the attack. It said that the first report from anyone using the site came 12 minutes after the broadcast ended.

It did not say when it took down the video other than “within minutes” of being contacted by police and was now working directly with the authorities.

Experts said that the damage was done in the first half-hour with users able to copy and spread the video.

Facebook said it removed about 1.5 million videos of the attack globally within the first 24 hours, with 80 per cent of the total blocked during uploading and before it could ever be seen. "The whole platform is designed to share pictures, videos and music," said Prof Alan Woodward, a cyber security expert at Surrey University. "It's a victim of its own success."

What about other sites?

Twitter and YouTube also removed the footage but new copies have continued to crop up across the Web, driven by the early viewers of the material, said experts.

A user on the forum 8chan, which has proved popular with right-wing extremists, posted a link to a copy of the video on a file-sharing site before Facebook was alerted to the video, the social media giant said. The killer’s 74-page ‘manifesto’ also spread from 8chan to mainstream social media networks.

Some mainstream news networks and websites also came under fire for showing an edited version of the footage, cutting it off as the alleged killer, Brenton Tarrant, entered the first mosque.

Could Facebook have done better?

As world’s largest social media network, Facebook has thrown resources at the problem of extremist, illegal and violent content on its site, but experts said it could do more.

The company said last year it was investing in artificial intelligence and hiring up to 20,000 people by the end of 2018 to identify and remove harmful content. “They do have a significant challenge but my instinct is they haven’t put the same degree of emphasis on it we are now asking them to now,” said Peter Wood, a retired cyber security consultant. Mr Wood said the emphasis was on swift action since the technology to copy and re-post on other platforms was simple and widely available.

"It's half a dozen mouse clicks and a copy of the video is reuploaded," said Prof Woodward, who said some of the clips appeared to have been slightly edited to try to fool automated systems. "It's difficult not to conclude that they are doing it deliberately to prevent Facebook from stopping it for at least a period of time."

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a group of global internet companies led by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter, said it added more than 800 different versions to a shared database used to block violent terrorist images and videos.

What has been the fallout from the streamed video?

Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister, has urged countries to use the G20 group of nations to discuss ways to crack down on social media companies. He called for an agreement on the “clear consequences” for those who stream horrific events online.

The New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has also called for action. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” she told parliament on Tuesday.

New Zealand media reported that some of the country’s banks were considering pulling advertising from the site.

Facebook insists it is a user driven platform but many politicians want it to accept the responsibilities of a publisher. That would mean an ability to screen material before it is disseminated or a vastly expanded capacity to stop suspect material reaching users.

What has happened in the past?

Facebook has repeatedly been accused of failing to keep offensive content off sites because it conflicted with the demands for cash from advertisers. Critics point to the apology from the company after an undercover reporter revealed that moderators at a centre in Dublin failed to remove racially-charged and violent material despite it being reported by users and reviewed.

In November last year, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg failed to show for a hearing in London before MPs from nine countries. The hearing – which went ahead in his absence – heard that the company failed to take down a post in Sri Lanka calling for the murder of Muslims.