Ever since contemporary terrorism emerged in the 19th century, there has been coverage of it. And ever since that coverage started, there has been a debate over its excesses and restraints.
Journalists frequently face criticism for providing terrorists with the “oxygen of publicity” by reporting on their motives or demands. But Friday’s right-wing terrorist attack in Christchurch, in which at least 50 people were killed, marked a major shift: Terrorists no longer need journalists in the same way, if they can get a million other people to upload their content for them instead.
Facebook said it removed more than 1.5 million versions of the attacker’s live video feed of his mosque attack in Christchurch. Other platforms such as YouTube and Twitter similarly struggled to contain the spread of the gruesome footage. At the same time, users worldwide read through the attacker’s manifesto, in which he laid out his worldview in a Q&A format.
Friday’s attack has turned a moral dilemma that once mostly affected journalists into a broader question for almost anyone with access to a social network. Where are the boundaries between posting about an attack to condemn it — and unintentionally helping to spread a perpetrator’s message in the process?
In an address to Parliament on Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a strong case for denying the suspected Christchurch attacker the attention he craved. “He will, when I speak, be nameless . . . And to others, I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost, rather than name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”
Ardern’s case for not naming terrorists or focusing on them isn’t exactly new. Some researchers argue that terrorism wouldn’t exist without the publicity media grant them by reporting on their actions and ideologies. Over the decades, the quest to dominate headlines has resulted in attacks being tailored for TV — as 9/11 was — or for social media, as the latest case in Christchurch shows. There’s hardly any difference between right-wing extremist terrorists and Islamist attackers on that front: Both want and need the attention of the groups they’re fighting against. By denying them this kind of publicity, Ardern’s argument goes, extremism can be starved of the oxygen it needs to survive.
On the flip side of this argument, however, terrorism analysts have maintained that examining and discussing motives as well as individuals’ path to radicalization is crucial to understand how to prevent future attacks. Democracies in particular, they argue, should have an inherent interest in understanding why some in their midst feel the need to resort to violent means to pursue ideological goals.
Besides that, there just aren’t a lot of options to stop people from focusing on suspects, as history shows. When Germany’s left-wing terrorists began kidnapping people across the country in the 1970s, the government introduced a news embargo. In other countries, terrorism suspects were charged in secret trials to avoid publicity and to prevent national-security-relevant details from becoming public. In both cases, however, foreign media outlets — not bound by the same rules — broke embargoes and questioned the government-imposed secrecy.
The same now applies to social media, where embargoes are almost impossible to enforce. New Zealand has charged at least one person so far for sharing the live-streamed attack video from Friday, but with more than 1.5 million uploads on Facebook alone, it’s clear that law enforcement won’t deny terrorists the publicity they seek in the 21st century.
Amid that historical context, Ardern has chosen a third option: Setting an example but refraining from deploying judicial pressure. On Tuesday, Ardern was widely applauded for her initiative, including by the husband of late British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016.
“When Jo was killed I vowed the same,” Brendan Cox wrote on Twitter. “I have often genuinely forgotten the person’s name and my kids have never heard it. Notoriety is such an important driver for terrorists and we should all get better at denying them it.”
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