Within hours of the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that country's government called on people to refrain from sharing the killer's "manifesto" and the video he'd taken of his crimes-in-progress. Except that New Zealand's officials didn't just ask; pointing to the laws of their own country, they demanded that the offending material be suppressed by social media companies and online publishers, under penalty of laws that wouldn't seem to apply beyond the island nation.
The desire to avoid promoting a mass murderer's ideas and actions is certainly understandable, but the wisdom of removing them from public observation and discussion isn't by any means a given. And the eagerness with which most of the online giants complied with a government's censorship demands raises serious concerns about the prospects for the free exchange of ideas. The dangers of that sort of soft totalitarianism emphasize the importance of developing and promoting alternative platforms which are committed to free speech and resistant to collaborating with government officials.
"It's our view that [the murderer's video] cannot, should not, be distributed, available, able to be viewed. It is horrendous," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters, amidst concerns that the graphic footage would harm viewers. "You can't have something so graphic available and it not. That is why it is so important that it is prioritised, that it is removed."
To achieve that goal, New Zealand's chief censor (yes, it has such an office) formally banned the video, imposing fine of $10,000 and up to 14 years in prison on anybody sharing it, and demanding the names of anybody (apparently including those living in less censorious jurisdictions) who had already done so. Officials also moved to involve the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—in monitoring and controlling social media.
Even before the legal penalties were in place, big tech companies stumbled over themselves to comply. Facebook reported that it had deleted or blocked 1.5 million copies of the bloody video, and it fought attempts to link to the hate-filled manifesto. Twitter and Youtube did the same, and document sharing services including Document Cloud and Scribd worked to delete the 74-page screed.
The tech giants alternately won praise for moving quickly to suppress speech, and criticism for not moving fast and thoroughly enough.
It is understandable why they wouldn't want such unpleasant material circulating on their services. But it's also disturbing that they moved in lockstep, with no pushback over the call to delete content, and no public discussion of the wisdom of the policy.
As the tech giants made their move in collaboration with the New Zealand government, dissenters played whack-a-mole with the big companies and also took to smaller services and websites that didn't suppress speech. Many of them had vile motivations—it's hard to come up with a good way to characterize turning the video into a simulation of a first-person shooter game. But vile people have free speech rights, too, and we need to respect them lest the definition of "vile" become a weapon itself.
There are also constructive reasons for sharing and analyzing a terrorist's motivations and actions. By doing so, you can determine which toxic ideas may motivate violence, get an idea of where threats may come from in the future, and tear those ideas apart in public view.
Writing at Medium, James Peron pointed out that the manifesto's author "combines environmentalism, racism and authoritarianism into one repulsive package" and "hates capitalism, free markets, and free trade but he loves the Communist Chinese government and fascism."
Prominent early 20th century writer and adviser-to-the-powerful Madison Grant expressed similar ideas, according to Jeffrey A Tucker at the American Institute for Economic Research. "Men with the same views, much more sophisticated in expression but just as violent in aim, once came from the Ivy League, occupied the highest levels of social and professional achievement right here in the U.S., and remained heroes of 'Progressivism' for many decades after the Second World War," he added.
The murderer was also a product of our shits-and-giggles, but with high-stakes, age. "Parts of the document are obvious put-ons," Jesse Walker wrote for Reason, "even as the blood in Christchurch reminds us that the killer wasn't kidding about his lethal intentions."
Analyzing the document reminds us that New Zealand currently has an anti-capitalist prime minister in Jacinda Ardern, in coalition with a populist, nationalist, anti-immigration party headed by Winston Peters. The coalition government has the support of the Green Party. This coalition is by no means murderous—no more so than any other government, anyway—nor does it embrace the murderer's white supremacism.
But all too many of the Christchurch killer's authoritarian ideas are not as far removed from the mainstream as we might wish.
So, what of the video? What possible good use can come from watching people slaughtered? That's a harder case to make, no doubt. But we should remember that awareness of the brutal reality of war soared largely as a result of thorough documentation of violent conflicts, and that experience may offer us lessons for dealing with terrorist acts.
"The Vietnam War was the most visually represented war in history, existing, to a great degree, as moving image," wrote Michael A. Anderegg in Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television, published in 2009. "Certainly, the war became a television event, a tragic serial drama stretched over thousands of nights in the American consciousness."
Video records of violent incidents of police brutality have also been effective tools in publicizing misconduct, fueling protest, and motivating change. (Activists have complained that Facebook is too quick to delete video evidence of bad police behavior.)
Could video of a terrorist act bring home the human cost of violence to the people who see it? It's a question worth considering—whether government officials or tech company executives like it or not.
Which is why moves by New Zealand's government to ignore individual rights, bypass discussion, and head straight to censorship are so disturbing. Worse is the inclination of tech executives to submit without protest. We know that governments tend toward authoritarianism; we don't need the private sector moving in lockstep as their enablers.
Exacerbating the threat is a new generation of technological tools under development that "will make past efforts to spread propaganda and quash dissent look primitive," promise Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick of the Center for a New American Security. If the companies that once prided themselves on battling repressive regimes (remember when Facebook and Twitter facilitated communication among Arab Spring protesters?) instead uniformly turn to enabling control, anybody who differs with officialdom's kneejerk reactions to events is in for a rough ride.
That's why the smaller social media companies and independent sites that didn't knuckle under to New Zealand's demands are so important. Whether committed to free speech, resistant to top-down commands, driven by a need to differentiate from the big players, or themselves sympathetic to vile ideas, these alternatives ensure that we're not all compelled to speak as with one voice, or act as if under the direction of a single will.
Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube suppressing unpleasant material is just a policy preference if other services are free to make different choices. But if the tech giants move in lockstep to enact the dictates of government officials and to choke off other voices, their success isn't just a matter of corporate preference, it's a victory for soft totalitarianism.
Fortunately, alternative services and sites are available and those of us who care about free speech and diversity of ideas should do our best to ensure their viability. None of the more free-wheeling social media platforms currently have the user base of the big companies, and the users they have can sometimes be the sort who unsurprisingly feel unwelcome in mainstream settings (Gab is widely characterized as an alt-right mecca). You may want to keep your Facebook account just to share photos with your cousins and your college buddies. But these alternative services offer policies generally more respectful of diverse ideas than their big competitors. It's worth having accounts on Mastodon, Gab, MeWe, Minds, and the like to expand their audience and to make sure they survive so that dissent remains possible.
The future can remain welcoming for free speech and diverse viewpoints, despite the efforts of governments and their collaborators among the big tech companies. But we're all going to have to make some effort to keep the welcome mat out.