A summit next week on terrorist and extremist material hosted on social media platforms must also be the start of a wider conversation about the traditional media’s role in peddling hate.
Next week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the French President Emmanuel Macron will co-host a global summit calling for a “Christchurch Call” – a pledge to combat hate and extremism on social media sites.
The summit is being convened in light of the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, in which 50 people were murdered at two mosques. Sickeningly, the terrorist broadcast the killings live on Facebook.
The gathering will be held during the ‘tech for humanity’ meeting of G7 digital ministers in Paris, meaning politicians and technology companies will be around the table.
But, will the summit provide the urgent impetus required to tackle hate and extremism hosted, not only by social media platforms, but by mainstream news sites – visited daily by millions and in a race to the bottom chasing ‘clicks’?
More than a million people are likely to have viewed footage of the Christchurch attacks on the websites of mainstream newspapers, according to new analysis by the media campaigning group Hacked Off, which has warned that online news sites are “encouraging and perpetuating hate”.
Although the Christchurch terrorist’s livestream video had a total of 4,000 views on Facebook – with the social media giant then taking action to prevent any further uploads – the websites of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Sun “were actively choosing to publish footage from it, amplifying material that may incite racial hatred and depicts the actions of a self-proclaimed white supremacist terrorist – and did so after New Zealand police had requested the footage not be shared”, according to Hacked Off.
As well as the newspaper sites editing and re-publishing the footage, Mail Online also published the killer’s white supremacist hate ‘manifesto’.
Extremist propaganda might reach tens of thousands of people naturally through their own channels or networks, but the moment a national newspaper publishes it… it has a potential reach of tens of millions.Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner, Met Police
“With the statistics on reach that are available, and the possibility that these videos were published for up to three hours which are typically a high traffic period (9am – 12pm), it is likely that the actions of these publishers brought the edited footage to over a million people,” stated Hacked Off.
It said it has written to the newspapers in question about how long the videos were available for and has received no response – but that it received a response to its analysis from the office of Prime Minister Ardern within hours, with New Zealand’s premier saying that the role of traditional newspaper sites in spreading extremism had not been on her radar before.
“Despite several newspapers, journalists and online platforms attempting to absolve themselves of blame for laying the ideological groundwork that led to the events in New Zealand and many other racist attacks, it has ignited a global conversation on the role the media plays in encouraging and perpetuating hate,” Hacked Off’s director Kyle Taylor said.
Newspapers and media websites in the UK are not required to sign up to a regulator, raising questions around accountability on such issues.
In its ‘Online Harms’ white paper, published in April, the Government said it plans to introduce a new regulator for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter – to combat the spread of online extremism and fake news, among other things. However, newspapers and news sites would be exempt.
‘Terrorists Attack to Gain Notoriety’
Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police and the UK’s lead on counter-terrorism, said that it is time for a “sensible conversation about how to report terrorism in a way that doesn’t help terrorists” after the Christchurch attacks.
In an open letter, he wrote: “The same media companies who have lambasted social media platforms for not acting fast enough to remove extremist content are simultaneously publishing uncensored Daesh propaganda on their websites, or make the rambling ‘manifestos’ of crazed killers available for download.
“A piece of extremist propaganda might reach tens of thousands of people naturally through their own channels or networks, but the moment a national newspaper publishes it in full then it has a potential reach of tens of millions. We must recognise this as harmful to our society and security.”
He cited the Finsbury Park attack in London in 2017 – in which a van was driven into a group of worshippers standing close to a mosque – and said the perpetrator was “driven to an act of terror by Far Right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media, not even having to plumb the depths of social media or the dark web to find the material that ultimately radicalised him”.
The mainstream media “cannot simply hide behind the mantra of freedom of speech,” Assistant Commissioner Basu added. “That freedom is not an absolute right, it is not the freedom to cause harm – that is why our hate speech legislation exists”.
Speaking last month at the annual lecture of IPSO – a press regulator which newspapers can voluntarily sign up to – Sara Khan, the Government’s Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, agreed with the police chief’s comments.
She pointed out that “the threat to journalism from extremism is one that cannot be ignored”, but also referred to social media as a “game-changer” in the spreading of radicalising propaganda.
“It has allowed extremists to spread their ideologies, amplifying their hatred and their activities further and faster than ever before,” Ms Khan said.
The Christchurch attacks have ignited a global conversation on the role the media plays in encouraging and perpetuating hate.Kyle Taylor, director, Hacked Off
“A small hardcore can get the attention of hundreds of thousands within days or even hours. We’ve seen misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news circulate at an unprecedented rate, challenging our perceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. This assault on our sensibilities is unrivalled in human history.”
Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered MP Jo Cox and a co-founder of Survivors Against Terror, also voiced similar concerns following the Christchurch attacks.
“One of the reasons that many terrorists attack is to gain notoriety,” he wrote. “Terrorists are often people seeking recognition, affirmation and meaning in their empty lives. That’s why they wear cameras. It’s why they write manifestos. It’s why they film videos of themselves. All of that makes sense from their perspective but what doesn’t make sense is our media playing into their hands; promoting their videos, hosting their manifestos, telling us their life story again and again.”
While next week’s summit is a welcome, symbolic move, it must also lead to practical change. Because, as Christchurch showed, there are tragic, real-life implications of what goes on in the digital world we absorb ourselves in. Lives are in danger.