YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have been scrambling overnight and into Friday to remove horrific video footage recorded by one of the participants in the terrorist attacks that killed 49 people in New Zealand. A mounting backlash online suggests that many people don’t think the companies are doing nearly enough.
The mass shooting carried out in two mosques during Friday prayers is the worst ever suffered by the small nation, and its reverberations increased because of the primary attacker’s efforts to promote his hateful agenda using digital means. The unidentified man in his late 20s, who police said has been arrested for murder, used a message board on 8chan to announce his plan to stream the killings live on Facebook.
The 17-minute footage he shot with a helmet camera was viewed by more than 200,000 people, according to multiple press reports. It was also mirrored and circulated across the internet for hours afterward and is still viewable. The shooter also included references in a 74-page manifesto to Fortnite, conservative pundit Candace Owens and YouTube personality PewDiePie, who has the most subscribers of any on the site and who has repeatedly endorsed anti-Semitic statements. Those references appeared to be designed to capitalize on the way search algorithms tend to surface information.
Soon after the news of the attack surfaced, Facebook tweeted a statement about the situation attributed to New Zealand-based staffer Mia Garlick. “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by the horrendous shootings in New Zealand,” the statement said. “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. We’re also removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware. We will continue working directly with New Zealand Police as their response and investigation continues.”
YouTube also tweeted a statement soon after the news broke. “Our hearts are broken over today’s terrible tragedy in New Zealand,” it said. “Please know we are working vigilantly to remove any violent footage.”
Twitter has also been battling to remove shared videos. “We are deeply saddened by the shootings in Christchurch on Friday,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “Twitter has rigorous processes and a dedicated team in place for managing exigent and emergency situations such as this. We also cooperate with law enforcement to facilitate their investigations as required.”
The vulnerability of the platforms to exploitation by extremists or even more garden-variety criminals has been a topic for years, and several violent incidents have repeatedly put the issue back into the spotlight. Tech companies have pledged to improve their filtering and prevention efforts while balancing those measures against the drive to protect the open spirit of the platforms, which enabled them to grow so explosively over the past decade.
The online backlash against the tech giants appears to be growing, however. A news story in the Washington Post described the platforms as “amplifying” the attack footage, with one of the outlet’s reporters, Drew Harwell, tweeting, “The world’s biggest tech companies can’t stop giving attention to a hateful guy with a gun.”
New Zealand-born A-listers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi joined many social media users in urging their followers not to share the attack video, retweeting messaged to that effect.