New Zealand mass shooting shows tech companies can't control viral tragedies – CNET


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/Getty Images

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

On Friday, a gunman in Christchurch attacked Muslims praying at a mosque and livestreamed the shooting on Facebook. The social network removed the video and deleted the shooter’s account. But that didn’t stop the clip from spreading across the internet.

The roughly 17-minute video was downloaded from Facebook. Then it was re-uploaded to YouTube multiple times, often within minutes of each other. YouTube is encouraging users to to flag any videos showing this clip and said it has been removing thousands of videos related to the shooting in the last 24 hours.

“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,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. “As with any major tragedy, we will work cooperatively with the authorities.” 

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

Alfred Ng / CNET

The video-streaming giant uses algorithms, such as Content ID, that automatically detect when copyrighted materials like songs and movie clips are uploaded onto its platform so they can be taken down by copyright owners.

Google, which owns YouTube, didn’t specify if it was using those tools to help control the spread of the New Zealand video. The company said it was using smart detection technology to remove the clips, but didn’t offer details on how it was tackling the issue.

The search for the violent videos underscores the difficulty social media companies have in detecting and removing hateful videos and comments. In what has become a sad practice, videos of tragedies bounce around the web as tech giants try to purge them. Critics have pointed out the New Zealand shooter was able to livestream his rampage for more than a quarter of an hour before Facebook shut it down.

“This is flatly unacceptable,” Farhana Khera, the director of Muslim Advocates, said in a statement. “Tech companies must take all steps possible to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Authorities in New Zealand reported that 49 people were killed and at least 20 wounded at two mosques. Three people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, and one suspect has been charged with murder.

Facebook said it was continuing to search for any instances of the video on the social network, using reports from the community and human moderators, as well as tech tools. The social network didn’t identify which 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, including 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. It then blocks those videos without requiring a human being to review them.

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

The gunman in New Zealand promoted his livestream and a manifesto on his Facebook account, along with 8Chan, a fringe message board, looking to use the internet to make his mass murder go 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 clips of the shooting continue to resurface, experts worry 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,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “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.” 

Originally published March 15, 8:24 a.m. PT
Update, 9:26 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Muslim Advocates, background.

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