The Christchurch Massacre – social media another tool of bigotry and terror

It was the most unspeakable of crimes. Entering a place hallowed by prayer and peopled by a gathering turning to God. And recklessly and joyfully executing the innocent. It was beyond belief, beyond comprehension, beyond the reach of human understanding.

An outrage fuelled not just by a racist ideology or palpable evil but by the technology that we now take for granted. Because when a 28-year-old Australian gunman, entered the al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the tools of his deadly trade included nor just the souped-up artillery he had at his disposal but developments in modern media that allowed him to film the carnage and to stream it live on Facebook – and knowing that it would be re-posted on YouTube. The world wide web was bringing live to the eyes of the world the personal holocaust he was inflicting on his victims.

What emerged was a video of 17 minutes duration that, despite the efforts of those in charge of such media to remove it from their sites, took on a life of its own and continued to be viewed by inestimable numbers around the world – just as the killer had intended.

Uncontrolled and, it would seem, uncontrollable media have added to the effectiveness of those who can – apparently with impunity – inflict their warped ideologies on the public by perpetrating indefensible outrages, in an effort to publicise their malign philosophies. The man who inflicted terror on Christchurch, Jenny McCartney suggested in the London Times, is ‘a creature of the internet, the medium that helped to radicalise him, nursed and enlarged his discontents, provided ideological companionship and let him publicise his appalling actions’.

If ever there was evidence of a need for a zero tolerance approach to the excesses of social media the Christchurch experience presents it to the as yet unconvinced authorities. And those lesser authorities – like parents, for example, who wash their hands of the influence of such media – need to re-examine the malign nature of a culture swamping their children and, by extension, society.

At a number of levels this fanatic’s unspeakable actions, leaving 50 dead and 50 more seriously injured, trawled the depths of horror.

One, most of those who gathered were refugees from trouble-spots around the world who wanted little more out of life than to live in peace. New Zealand, extending the hand of friendship, offered solace and care. Of all the possible destinations such refugees might have experienced, New Zealand seemed to answer all their needs, not least safety and security from the malign ideologies of people like the man who murdered the innocent worshippers of a Christchurch mosque.

Two, part of the solace that New Zealand offered was the freedom to worship their God, not least the sense that when they entered their place of worship – as Muslims, their mosque – they could shape their own religious rituals in line with their own traditions because they had the respect and support of a wider believing community.

And three, even if they could ever have imagined being attacked, they could not possibly have contemplated the burden that such an outrage would visit on them: the lost lives, the fragmented families, the grief and trauma of those who survived and the inestimable repercussions for so many, as yet untouched by the anarchy of Christchurch.

Because, as we know in Ireland from bitter memory, such outrages – no matter how appalling in the loss of life and the suffering that ensues– tend to blend into the background and become, for most observers, little more than part of the mood music of our times. Christchurch is not the end of the story because every violent outrage is an invitation to retaliation. Outrages, as we know, feed off each other.

When the Troubles of a few decades ago were at their height, the Six O’Clock RTE television news regularly reported on the latest outrage in Northern Ireland with predictable details about the names of the victims, the extent of telephone warnings,  the usual suspects and the ritual condemnations of politicians and churchmen. This reporting was accompanied by pictures of body-parts being collected by hapless police, fire, and ambulance personnel.

It seemed just part of the weather of our lives. Another evening, another outrage. Signature music to our disjointed times. And as outrage followed outrage, those who were left to reap the whirlwind were soon forgotten to bear their ongoing and sometimes life-long agonies in silence. There came a point when it almost didn’t seem to matter.

Killing, it is said, does this to people. Assassins or bombers are groomed gradually by being exposed to lesser outrages – a beating here or a knee-capping there – and when the time comes for an outrage of Christchurch dimensions, it seems to matter little to the terrorists of our world.

A generation of Irish people grew up watching the Six O’Clock RTE television news in the belief that life in Ireland was always like this – just as another generation is growing up believing that life in Ireland was never like this. And those who sensed the enormity of the outrages learned to manage them by blotting out the legacy of bitterness and hatred (and occasionally forgiveness) that was the lot of those left to bear the pain and the trauma.

There’s a bitter irony in the comment last week of Tim Berners-Lee, the man to whom the creation of the www has been attributed. The recent 30thbirthday of the world wide web found him acknowledging that his creation had facilitated the spreading of hatred and crime – and stating the obvious truth that with world-wide cooperation the dark side of the world wide web  could be controlled.

The best of luck with that. We can hear, I’m afraid, stable doors being banged shut even though the horses have already disappeared over the horizon.












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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Thanks, Brendan, for this heartfelt and perceptive comment. The social media have not been the Garden of Paradise but rather a new theatre for Original Sin. When they are effectively weaponized by murderers it is time to call a halt. But it’s hard to see how.

  2. Frances Burke says:

    Excellent article as always Brendan.

    Not alone have the horses disappeared over the horizon, they will never be gathered up again. It is not in the vested interests of the major social media organizations to do so.

    The good and bad aspects of the World Wide Web are becoming increasingly apparent. On the plus side it has given access to information on every subject under the sun at the touch of a button. Email has provided free instant communication which has great benefit for the business community. Social media sites have allowed friends and relatives from far and wide to share photos and stay in touch.

    On the negative side, the dark net provides a platform where all sorts of illegal and criminal activity takes place. Soaring rates of anxiety among young children is directly attributable to increased time spent peering into devices. Some teenagers and adults equate their value with the number of “friends” they have or “likes” they receive. Often times these “friends” have no idea who they are and certainly wouldn’t be there when a friend is needed.

    People are becoming totally disconnected from themselves and dependent on outside validation for their self worth. Nobody wants to appear less than perfect in this world (hence the need to take 20 selfies before a picture is posted). Any admission of being human and frail is mocked on some sites. The level of discourse or comment on most sites is beyond shallow normally reduced to one liners or emojis.

    It is not in the interest of social media sites to change their systems. While we are online they are harvesting huge volumes of information about us. They know our likes and dislikes from our online searches and can “recommend” things that may be of interest. You may have noticed the advertising of a product four days after we were searching for it online. They can follow our every step by gps and know where we are at all times. It is not an exaggeration to say that they know more about us than we know about ourselves. Knowledge is power and these social media giants are hugely powerful entities. Unbeknownst to us, we are freely giving them that power. I have no doubt that if pressure is put on them they will spare no effort in protecting their power.

    One of the foremost thinkers of our time is Yuval Noah Harari. In this interview with Christine Leguard he gives a fascinating analysis of the human condition and where the ‘race’ could be in thirty years time.

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