acial hatred is re-emerging as a major motivation for terror acts, as is exemplified in the mass killings at Christchurch in New Zealand this Friday. This time, the role of social media in this heinous act has added to the terror and pathos. The same technology which has given a normal user access to the World Wide Web and connected people living in different parts of the globe has also made it possible to livestream such acts and play to the galleries of terror. The fact that the perpetrator live-streamed the entire act on Facebook along with his manifesto points to the dangerous times we’re now living in. Even scarier is the fact that none of the numerous viewers watching the mass murders thought of informing the police or finding ways to get authorities involved before it was too late. The perpetrator supposedly had time to walk back to his vehicle to get more ammunition and kill more people, while streaming the entire episode to a live audience.
The killer also seemingly referred to a specific popular YouTuber and an online game in the video. The police reached tragically late but managed to arrest the perpetrator and a couple of accomplices. In a damage control effort, the government and security agencies desperately contacted social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to block and remove the videos and links. It was too late. The message the killer wanted to spread was already sent, watched and shared worldwide.
What happened in New Zealand is seen as an increasing form of hate crime in Western countries stemming from what is loosely termed Islamophobia. This has opened a new front for global agencies to tackle. Social scientist Samuel Huntington’s prediction that future conflicts will occur along cultural fault-lines separating civilizations – where race, religion and culture will play dominant roles – is proving to be true. Terror is taking various forms, not limited anymore to Islamic narrative. The person involved in the killings in New Zealand supposedly had extreme right, anti- Islam, anti- immigrant, white suprematist leanings.
The mass killings at the two mosques caused 49 deaths, leaving many more injured at the hands of a youth, who was incensed over the ‘invasion’ of outsiders to areas which were earlier in the hands of white people. His concern was over mass migrations by Asians and Africans. Notably, the Christchurch locality in New Zealand where the killings were executed had witnessed mass migrations post a 2011 earthquake, which had killed over 200 people, razed homes and saw an exodus of local inhabitants. The positive role played by migrants who were helping rebuild the city didn’t strike the blinkered vision of the assailant. And, when he acted, he did so in a most calculated, brutal manner and played out his act live, leading viewers to his hate filled manifesto and dangerously showing how much damage a single person was capable of.
Social media organisations like Facebook and Twitter came in for flak for their failure to block circulation of the Christchurch shootings. The technology helped the assailant publicize his act with ease and lightning speed, giving the impression that it was orchestrated keeping in view global social media users. Before the attack took place, an anonymous message board reportedly linked viewers to a manifesto trashing immigrants and Moslems, and users were directed to a Facebook page that hosted the live streaming. Technology helped little to stop the spread of the video because these platforms rely on automated software to remove objectionable content online. The software supposedly could not differentiate between a terror video and a game video. Such terror postings have happened in the past as well, as with the Al Shabaab militants who staged a shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013; and the terror killing of four persons in eastern Paris two years later.
The Christchurch killings could have resulted from a global hate initiative by white supremacists, a growing army in the online world too. What happened in New Zealand could be replicated elsewhere, as others with similar leanings could draw inspiration from the killings. Reports are also that ‘gaming culture’ was evident in the undertaking and stylization of these mass killings – the background music and gun visible in the shooting was visually reminiscent of shooting games.
Less-populated New Zealand, often cited as being among the best places to live, was an unlikely place for terror acts of any kind. It was chosen by the Australian-born perpetrator also suspectedly due to the ease with which firearms could be procured in the country, due to weak gun-possession laws. New Zealand is on its way to tightening gun laws in future after this attack. Governments seem to act only when the worst is past.
On the other hand, there is a huge concern looming large over control and influence of social media which will increasingly be weaponised to spread hate and violence across the world. The irony is that the tools which empower are the same tools that have the potential to destroy. The world is faced with technology that is moving at a pace much faster than evolution of ways to control it. With rising religious intolerance, nations worldwide, as well as India- with an increasing base of online users and a mixed demographic of peoples and cultures- have much to worry about.