LONDON — As Christchurch came to a standstill March 29, part of a memorial service for the 50 victims of a terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand two weeks earlier, questions were being asked about how far-right hatred is spread online, particularly via social media.
Among issues considered are how Facebook reacted after the March 15 attack, which was live streamed on the social media platform, and what role the internet played in the radicalisation of the alleged perpetrator, white supremacist Brenton Tarrant.
The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) said social media companies — Facebook in particular — needed to do more to address the proliferation of extremist content on their platforms.
“Facebook has received much criticism... and deservedly so, for allowing the New Zealand terrorist’s live stream to run its course on the platform, especially given that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has previously promoted artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as the panacea to eliminating this kind of horrific content,” CEP Executive Director David Ibsen said in a release.
“The tech industry has used spin and talking points playing up the promise of machine learning and AI to deflect pressure from lawmakers, advertisers, the media and the public. The unfortunate fact that the video of the shootings was re-uploaded millions of times across numerous different websites shows that tech’s pledges and promises have gone unfulfilled.”
Facebook said it removed 1.5 million videos of the attack within 24 hours after the shootings and blocked 1.2 million attempts to upload the video. The company promised to do more to ensure that the 17-minute Facebook live stream could not be seen on its platform.
A statement by Facebook Vice-President of Product Management Guy Rosen confirmed that the company’s AI system failed to recognise the live stream as a terrorist attack and said Facebook would upgrade its systems.
"We will need to provide our systems with large volumes of data of this specific kind of content, something which is difficult as these events are thankfully rare," Rosen said in a post.
"AI is an incredibly important part of our fight against terrorist content on our platforms, and while its effectiveness continues to improve, it is never going to be perfect."
Facebook is also facing lawsuits for the streaming of the attack, including from the France Council of the Muslim Faith. The group said it was suing Facebook and YouTube for “broadcasting a message with violent content abetting terrorism or of a nature likely to seriously violate human dignity and liable to be seen by a minor,” court documents stated.
In France, this could be punished by three years’ imprisonment and an $85,000 fine.
“Once again it has taken yet another tragic terrorist attack to expose how tech would rather distract, deny and dissemble than make real substantive changes to ensure their platforms are not misused to broadcast, promote or inspire violent acts,” Ibsen said.
New Zealand’s privacy commissioner criticised Facebook for its lack of response following the Christchurch attacks.
“It would be very difficult for you and your colleagues to overestimate the growing frustration and anger here at Facebook's facilitation of and inability to mitigate the deep, deep pain and harm from the live-streamed massacre of our colleagues, family members and countrymen broadcast over your network," Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said in an e-mail to Facebook executives.
Facebook pledged to block “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism” on its platforms and Instagram.
“Our policies have long prohibited hateful treatment of people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity or religion — and that has always included white supremacy,” Facebook said. “We didn’t originally apply the same rationale to expressions of white nationalism and white separatism.”
“But over the past three months our conversations with members of civil society and academics who are experts in race relations around the world have confirmed that white nationalism and white separatism cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organised hate groups.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who received international plaudits for her compassionate response to the terrorist attack, welcomed the move but stressed that more should be done.
“I’m pleased to see that they are including it and that they have taken that step but I still think that there is a conversation to be had with the international community about whether or not enough has been done,” Ardern said.
“There are lessons to be learnt here in Christchurch and we don’t want anyone to have to learn those lessons over again,” she added.
Speaking at the Christchurch memorial, she said any solution to racism, extremism and intolerance would have to be global.
“We ask that the condemnation of violence and terrorism turns now to a collective response. The world has been stuck in a vicious cycle of extremism breeding extremism and it must end,” she said.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London. You can follow him on twitter @mahmudelshafey
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