New Zealand attack shows social media is part of the problem

New Zealand attack shows social media is part of the problem
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For too long, white supremacy has been treated as a bizarre subculture, driven either by adolescent angst or misplaced nostalgia. Commentators — when not ignoring the phenomenon completely — have often focused either on the emotional and psychological issues at play.

Brenton Tarrant successfully destroyed this narrative. The Christchurch attack has hit home the seriousness of the threat, how easy it is to inflict horrendous terror, and how rapidly social media can be exploited to reach a global audience.

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In almost the first frame of his live-streamed video, Tarrant paused to focus the camera on the far-right slogans and icons emblazoned on his gun. He was, in essence, doing the same thing al-Qaeda often does by hoisting Qurans up with Kalashnikovs, or ISIS, by printing the Islamic declaration of faith on their flag. 

Tarrant intended to mobilize sympathetic white nationalists around the world to take up arms in the same way he did. And he did so by drawing on an ideology of hate that is trying hard to worm its way into the mainstream.

The message from all these terrorists is similar: This is not just mindless violence. We are not mentally ill. This is about our beliefs, and the vision we are fighting for.

Of course, we must avoid the temptation to exaggerate the threat — there is nothing inherent to being a young white male that predisposes one to political violence, just as being a young Muslim male does not immediately make one a potential jihadist.

But in the wake of New Zealand, it is undeniable that there has been a sea change in the scale of the danger from global lone-wolf far-right terror. So, the short-term temptation to keep governmental responses to “thoughts and prayers” rather than a true security-oriented strategy must be avoided. 

However, because of the complex relationships (and perhaps even conflicts of interest) between governments and social media companies, it is unlikely that this can be done at the national level. 

To be clear, social media is part of the problem — and they know it, even if they only acknowledging it through philanthropy, rather than explicitly accepting responsibility.

As UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said after the footage of Tarrant’s attack went viral on a number of social networks including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, “enough is enough”. 

But the problem is too big for any single government to handle, and the social networks have proven unwilling or incapable of solving the problem themselves.  

Far-right and other extremist propaganda is so widely distributed, so broadly sourced and so insidious on the internet (often weaved into material on everything from genetics to urban planning) that there is a need for a new global taskforce.

The U.S. government should support a transnational solution that treats this threat in the same way it has treated nuclear or chemical weapons. We must bring together all the world’s governments under the auspices of the United Nations, to agree to a kind of counter-propaganda non-proliferation treaty targeting hate speech, fake news and extremist content.  

Regulation works. After far-right group Britain First was banned by Facebook and suspended from Twitter, having lost its capacity to reach mass audiences, the group has hemorrhaged supporters and become a spent, negligible force.

Another task is to tease out the relationship between non-violent and violent far-right extremism. Just as we have seen with jihadist violence, it is not enough to stop those preparing physical attacks; we must also stop people and networks creating worldviews and value systems that allow violence to take root. 

This will mean drawing a line between conservatism and Republicanism on the one hand, and far-right ideas and white supremacy on the other. And that is a task that is becoming harder each day — on and offline.

Muddassar Ahmed is a former British government adviser, a fellow at the German Marshall fund and on an advisory board at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @unitascomms.