Mass murder on the internet

Mass murder on the internet
5 min read
15 Mar, 2019
Comment: In a twist of injustice, the Christchurch mass murderer has, with the aid of the internet, managed to muffle the story of his victims, writes Wilson Dizard.
The gunman used Facebook to live stream 17 minutes of his attack [Getty]
The world woke up on Friday to a story of mass murder that straddled worlds. Mass murder is old. Hearing about murder is at least as old as human language. Mourning the dead is even older. 

But today was different.

With the killings of at least 49 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we learned a new dimension to the horrors enabled by the internet.

In this case, mass murderer has managed to muffle the story of his victims by carrying out his crime in a way that allows every internet user to assist him in his plot to spread hate and fear, just by sharing the story, as billions of fingertips did today.

Meanwhile, the killer's victims' stories will never get as much global attention as the murderer's crime, broadcast live to billions.

Who knows how many scores of young men will watch the video, which will always remain online for people determined to see it. Who knows how many will get a thrill out of it? This is an unprecedented situation in the history of the documentation of human violence in any form of media.

Being able to drop behind the eyes and between the ears of that mass murderer, is new, too. His 'manifesto' becoming public immediately, exposing billions of people to the conscious thoughts of that killer, is also new.

It warps our perception of space, bringing New Zealand into our pockets, but it also distorts our perception of time, a kind of "detemporalisation". And that kind of detemporalisation, seems to form the crux of the killer's manifesto, when stripped of its provocative bigotry and deliberate misdirection.

The killer's victims' stories will never get as much global attention as the murderer's crime, broadcast live to billions

The ability to kill each other without remorse is as old as our arms and legs. The ability to broadcast our thoughts to others as we do it, in real time, is not.

Facebook Live has been used to broadcast murders and suicides before, and Facebook's content moderation teams have to sift through the sorrows, sins and sufferings of millions of lives. It takes a significant
psychological toll on poorly paid people desperate for a job.

The ability to process so much vivid, real-life horror is of course a severe strain on our brains, a fact the killer used to his own advantage. At the same time, the internet has become more and more wired into how we think, navigate and feel, to the extent it's becoming hard to distinguish where the silicon begins, and where our bodies end.

Just misplacing, or losing, your phone can feel like a disaster, where every message and memory entrusted to the slick black slab suddenly becomes inaccessible. The killer knew we couldn't look away from his crime any more than we can look away from the inside of our eyelids.

With a recording of his conscious experience flashing along undersea fiber optic cables connecting New Zealand to the world, the killer used proprietary Facebook software to terrify millions of people around the world, to make mothers and fathers fear for the lives of their children, to induce a panic across the planet. They don't even need to see it themselves. They just need to hear about it, and the killer gets what he wants.

It's strange to remember how American presidential candidates and politicians have taken to Instagram Live - a subsidiary of Facebook - and recorded themselves making dinner, or doing laundry while promoting their policies.

Read more: Syrian refugees among mosque shooting victims

People have also used the technology to broadcast police brutality as it happens, or police stops that made them feel unsafe. There is a basic human impulse there: Reaching out to others because you fear for your life.

But the New Zealand murderer managed, as many others have, to use the internet to incite dread and rage.

It's not clear if social media companies are capable, or even willing, to police such extremities of human behaviour. The motivation of Facebook, Google and Twitter is to increase shareholder value. Just as any corporation, they are devoid of conscience.

Without giving too much credence to the incitement-laced rant he published, it's clear that he has a fixation on the concept of Muslim and Christian "homelands," and was convinced that Muslims were invading "his" Christian homeland.

In this worldview, one that is in common currency on the alt-right, is the assumption that human beings can be separated into tectonic plates of one civilization or another; one history or another. It's a worldview that rejects any concept of interdependence that does not conform to the geographies of an imaginary history.

As much as human cruelty is an inextinguishable feature of our species, we also must never let it engulf us entirely.

It's not clear if social media companies are capable, or even willing, to police such extremities of human behaviour

The victory is in the struggle for peace, empathy and understanding. At this moment, when we're more connected than ever, merciless impulses seek to drive us apart. The loss of a guarantee to the linear flow of time, which is part of the internet's effect on modern life, means the struggle just gets tougher.  

The detemporalisation people undergo online can warp their experience of history, and what it means. The rise of right wing populism across the world has happened in concert with our disconnection from the future.

But the present is still real, and it demands our attention.

The alt-right's insistence is that people are better off not knowing each other - multiculturalism is impossible, and dangerous.

But the idea of keeping civilizations, skin colours and cultures apart from each other along imaginary lines is an invitation to violence as well. We need to expect better of ourselves, and each other, or days like Friday will keep happening.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.