New Zealand mass shooting shows tech companies can’t control viral tragedies

A police officer secures the area in front of the Masjid al Noor mosque after a shooting incident in Christchurch on March 15, 2019.


Tessa Burrows / AFP/Techhnews

For every video of the mass shooting in New Zealand that YouTube and Facebook blocks, another two or three seem to replace it.

On Friday, a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand attacked Muslims praying at a mosque and livestreamed the shooting on Facebook. The social network removed the video and deleted his account, but the clip was downloaded and has since spread across the internet.

It’s been re-uploaded to YouTube multiple times, often within minutes of each other, as YouTube continues to take the clips down. 

“Shocking, violent and graphic content has no place on our platforms, and we are employing our technology and human resources to quickly review and remove any and all such violative content on YouTube. As with any major tragedy, we will work cooperatively with the authorities,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement.

YouTube said it’s encouraging users to to flag any videos showing this clip, and has been removing thousands of videos related to the shooting in the last 24 hours.

Re-uploads of the clip have been plaguing YouTube’s moderators, who are struggling to remove the videos.


Alfred Ng / Techhnews

The video streaming giant has algorithms like Content ID that automatically detects when copyrighted materials like songs and movie clips are uploaded onto its platform, and can be automatically taken down by copyright owners.

Google, which owns YouTube, did not answer if it was using those tools to help control the video’s spread. While the company said it was using smart detection technology to remove the clips, it did not explain specifics on how it was tackling the issue.

Facebook said it was continuing to search for any instances of the video, using reports from the community and human moderators, as well as tech tools. The social network did not explain what tech tools it was employing to take down the content.

“New Zealand Police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video,” Mia Garlick, a Facebook New Zealand spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We’re also removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware.”

Tech giants like Facebook and Google have automation to remove extremist videos, and have successfully worked in the past.

In 2016, The Guardian reported that Facebook and Google used algorithms similar to Content ID to automatically remove videos linked to ISIS. This technology looks for videos that have already been uploaded and flagged as violations, and blocks them without a human needing to review it.

Facebook uses similar tools for blocking revenge porn on its website, the company revealed in 2017.

The gunman promoted his livestream and a manifesto his Facebook account, along with 8Chan, a fringe message board, looking to use the internet to make his mass murder viral.

In his manifesto, the gunman referenced pop culture topics like Fortnite, popular YouTuber PewDiePie and the video game Spyro the Dragon, in an attempt to draw more attention to his mass shooting.

As these clips continue to resurface, there are worries that the video will inspire the next mass shooter.

“This is one of the dark sides of social media, and something that’s almost impossible for the companies to do anything about. They’re not going to be able to block this material in real time,” Paul Barrett, a law professor who studies disinformation at New York University, said. “It’s a real conundrum about the dangers that social media can facilitate.”

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party, also called out tech platforms for struggling to stop the video’s spread. In a statement, Watson said he would be writing to social media companies to ask why they failed to remove the clips.

In a tweet, Watson said that YouTube should have suspended all new uploads until they could prevent the New Zealand mass shooting video from spreading.

“The failure to deal with this swiftly and decisively represents an utter abdication of responsibility by social media companies,” Watson said. “This has happened too many times. Failing to take these videos down immediately and prevent others being uploaded is a failure of decency.” 

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