The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fewer than 200 people watched the New Zealand massacre live. A hateful group helped it reach millions.

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Sunday, where one of two mass shootings occurred. (Vincent Yu/AP)

As the New Zealand gunman live-streamed the massacre onto Facebook, fewer than 200 people watched. The social network said its moderators removed it sometime after a user first reported it as troubling, 29 minutes after the stream began.

But on the anonymous message board 8chan, where the gunman had announced his “attack against the invaders” with a link to the live footage, a nameless group had already been racing to save, preserve and re-upload the video in corners of the Web where it’d be harder to take down.

It worked: Within 24 hours, the video of a mass terror attack that killed 50 people across two mosques had been uploaded onto Facebook more than 1.5 million times.

New numbers released by social media companies confirm what has been apparent since the March 15 killings: A single video that had been seen live by a relatively small audience had become, at the speed of the Web, impossible to contain, propelled by the same social-media infrastructure that has helped make American tech one of the most popular and wealthiest industries in history.

How social media’s business model helped the New Zealand massacre go viral

The companies have pledged to devote more resources to content moderation. But the new details reveal just how quickly the video rocketed out of their control to become one of the most distressing and hauntingly intimate depictions of mass murder ever recorded.

The original 17-minute live stream was announced on 8chan, an underbelly of the Web known as a haven for far-right extremism and hate speech, and posters there shared tips on how to save and share the video for “posterity” and maximum distribution. The ease with which anyone could save and re-upload it online, using a vast network of underground “mirror” sites, ensured it would be permanently stamped across the Web.

Facebook officials said they took down the original stream after it had been watched about 4,000 times. They also added the video to an internal ban list and began blocking it almost immediately, removing 1.5 million videos of the shooting within the first 24 hours, the company said.

Inside YouTube’s struggles to shut down video of the New Zealand shooting — and the humans who outsmarted its systems

Roughly 1.2 million of those videos were blocked at the time of upload by content moderators or automated algorithms that can find and flag blacklisted videos. But Facebook, which has more than 2 billion active users, has not said how many people viewed, commented on, reacted to or shared those 300,000 copies of the video once they were posted to the site.

The video took off on other platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, where unedited footage of the fatal shootings was viewable hours after the attack. YouTube officials told the Washington Post that a new copy was being uploaded every second.

To evade the tech giants’ automatic blocking systems, people also began tweaking the video slightly and re-uploading it. According to the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a trade group formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, more than 800 “visually distinct videos” of the attack had been digitally fingerprinted and banned.

The New Zealand shooting shows how YouTube and Facebook spread hate and violent images — yet again

The spread of the violent video has drawn sharp rebukes on Capitol Hill, where the House Homeland Security Committee, led by Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, asked Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter for a briefing next week on the matter.

In a note to those companies’ top executives sent Tuesday, Thompson stressed, “You must do better.” He also threatened possible regulation on the horizon. “If you are unwilling to do so, Congress must consider policies to ensure that terrorist content is not distributed on your platforms — including by studying the examples being set by other countries,” he said.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a Tuesday speech that the social-media giants must account for their role in aiding the videos’ rapid spread.

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” Ardern said. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.