Una Mullally: Behind New Zealand attack lies a web of terror

Our interactions with dark, radicalised, empathy vacuums of internet are dangerous

Mosques in New Zealand have been inundated with floral tributes and messages of solidarity after the worst mass killing in the nation’s history, which left 50 people dead. Video: Reuters

 

The horrific terrorist massacre in New Zealand doesn’t need another grim side. It already has many. But the disease that permeates the attack includes the feeling that it is a murderous event specifically conjured for and of our times.

The present tech-dystopia within which we exist has gained a new outrageous filter, as the killer strapped a camera to his body – like a diver, bouncer, cyclist, snowboarder – and livestreamed the rampage. Then there’s his crazed manifesto, designed for attention and steeped in the knowing tropes of contemporary violent right-wing internet discourse, discombobulated from common sense but firmly rooted in outrage. Then there are the motivations: hatred, racism, Islamophobia, at a time when online discourse inflames those things and more.

It is the goal of terrorism to capture the most attention, to have the highest impact but with the fewest resources, to be nimble and devastating, to be crowdsourced and outsourced, remote and international. It has the characteristics of the entities that thrive and survive in late-stage capitalism.

Terrorism presents awful innovations in violence. It disrupts societies and changes behaviour. It captures imaginations in the most brutal of ways. Terrorism has been theatre, spectacle, and as a society we have progressed to terrorism as viral content. The failings of nearly all social media platforms, especially a platform such as YouTube, to address the rabbit holes of conspiracy, nastiness, hate, radicalism and extremism are catastrophic.

YouTube’s algorithm

A few days after the attack, I ran a little experiment I often run with different variables in order to enter into the mindset and experience of someone who is watching YouTube videos in a passive, ambient manner. “Islamophobia is a myth,” I chose as my first search. A video popped up about just that. (“Nothing warms the heart like a burning mosque,” one of the higher-up comments read.) Then I just sat back and watched what videos would YouTube’s algorithm choose for me. Next up was Katie Hopkins on the Kremlin-funded outlet RT on the topic “Why do Muslims go to Christian countries?”

Terrorism presents awful innovations in violence. It disrupts societies and changes behaviour. It captures imaginations in the most brutal of ways

Then “Brigitte Gabriel’s Epic and Brilliant Answer to ‘Most Muslims Are Peaceful…’”, after that, an interview with Milo Yiannopoulos (who has since had his Australian visa rescinded) titled “Milo: I don’t need counselling after I hear Linda Sarsour [the women’s activist] speak, just a bucket.” The next video that automatically played was on Yiannopoulos’ channel itself, “Florida Professor Calls Milo a White Nationalist With Amazing Results.” After that, three Jordan Peterson videos in a row. Where do you go from here? We criticise people for staying in their echo chambers, but these chambers are also artificially and intentionally constructed by tech companies, platforms and social networks to keep us engaged.

Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch in New Zealand. Photograph: Mark Baker
Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch in New Zealand. Photograph: Mark Baker

It’s not just the dark, radicalised, trolling, empathy vacuums of the internet that are dodgy, it’s our interaction with it as an entity. It’s the amount of time we spend online, and what that does to our emotional literacy, our mindsets. It’s how our points of view, feelings and perhaps even our neurological make-up itself are being changed by the structures established as platforms to extract our data and influence our behaviour and thoughts.

There are so many facets to the impact of social media, for example, on the mental health and social dynamics of young people, but anyone who gets deep into the dull addiction of the scroll, the feed, the swipe and the refresh knows that it’s not good for you.

Social media consumption

There is a growing area of research sounding frantic alarms about impacts on self-worth, anxiety levels, self-esteem. This is not about archaic terms such as “cyber bullying”, which is simply bullying transferred to the digital space which adds intensity, longevity and amplification; this is about the impact of our “normal” interactions with social media on a day-to-day basis.

Armed police patrol outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP
Armed police patrol outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Research from 2018 shows that most teenagers in the US spend on average nine hours a day online. For children aged eight to 12, it’s six hours. A generation of parents whose own television consumption as kids was probably rationed to some degree, at least half-heartedly, often substitute engaging with their children with passing them a phone or iPad. We are told not to blame parents for this as a mechanism of distracting or calming a child, but it’s pretty obvious that it is not healthy for adults to be staring at screens all the time, never mind children.

Research from 2018 shows that most teenagers in the US spend on average nine hours a day online

What happened in New Zealand is a confluence of so many terrible things. But the “internety” nature of it is yet another canary screaming in a mine. While we may move to preserve ourselves by limiting our own internet immersion and screen time, it does feel as thought a much broader and more urgent reckoning needs to happen for those giant tech companies that are apparently astoundingly sophisticated. Yet they are still , somehow, prone to acts of incredible stupidity, shortsightedness, disingenuousness, obfuscation and opaqueness, companies that are by their own account doing so much for the greater good yet leverage the worst aspects of human behaviour for the stickiness of their products and profit.

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