“It broke the Internet.”
Anytime something new and wonderful and weird and stupid begins to make the rounds online, that’s what you hear.
Those two little kids ambushing their dad’s BBC interview broke the Internet. That accursed blue (or gold?) dress broke the Internet, too. Prayers up for Harambe, the dead gorilla. The Instagram egg. Gangnam style. Kim Kardashian West on a magazine cover, champagne arcing overhead and into a glass waiting on her butt? That definitely broke the Internet.
But what if the Internet really is broken?
On Friday, in the hours after 49 people were gunned down in a white supremacist terrorist attack at two New Zealand mosques — the whole thing streaming on Facebook — the graphic video of the incident ricocheted around the Internet faster than social media companies could control it.
The nearly 17-minute video appears to show a gunman opening fire in a mosque, just as he’d announced on the fringe social media platform 8chan.
His rambling manifesto was already posted online, waiting for the violence that would make it mean something. And though Facebook took down the user’s account after being contacted by police, it was too late: The video had been released into the world, and even mainstream social media services didn’t have much hope of stopping its spread.
It is now clearer than ever before: The Internet, this thing we all built together, has gotten away from us. There is no check box in the settings somewhere to rein in its cyclical malevolence, each nightmare sewing thousands of seeds that will one day, after years of patient tending on message boards, grow into nightmares of their own. The Internet is broken.
On Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, users shared the shooting video so quickly it couldn’t be contained.
“Police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video,” Facebook said on its Twitter account. “We’re also removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware.”
“Our hearts are broken over today’s terrible tragedy in New Zealand. Please know we are working vigilantly to remove any violent footage,” YouTube’s official Twitter account said.
But the damage, by then, was done.
It was everywhere, loose on the Internet and, by extension, the world — gobbled up somewhere by the next terrorist, racist, would-be murderer to be digested for a time and then inflicted, violently, on the physical world.
To be clear, violent expressions of racism and white supremacy are not strictly an Internet phenomenon. Many of these people existed, spreading their terrible worldview, inflicting pain, long before the first underground message board went online.
Nor is it a small problem. There is good reason to believe that the Internet has helped these terrible people multiply, made them more powerful, more attractive to disaffected young men, and more deadly.
The mechanics of the Internet involve, to borrow a much-derided description from an overwhelmed former senator, a series of tubes. But today the Internet operates with the force and manner of a powerful centrifuge, driving men with minds contaminated by racism and hate deeper and deeper down into the internet’s darkest places.
In about five minutes on Friday, clicking only on recommended videos in YouTube’s “Up Next” panel, I navigated from that delightful video of a young girl and a baby crashing their dad’s television interview to videos with titles like “Sharia law in TEXAS” and “The Solution to Stop Islam.” It took a dozen clicks.
And so it is that the social media giants’ efforts to scrub the latest murderous video, and the killer’s maniacal manifesto, from their servers will simply send users to ever-seedier corners of the Internet, in search of seeing something that feels forbidden.
A quick review of the shooter’s manifesto does not reveal any particular insight into the mind of a terrorist. There’s not even anything particularly newsworthy about it, despite its fairly transparent attempt to elicit more media coverage. It is the scattered, barely coherent thoughts of a racist who spent too much of his pathetic life scouring the Internet in search of meaning to inform his empty existence. It’s the sort of virulent, faux-intellectual gibberish that will appeal only to pathetic people just like him.
How many of the people who follow that trail will never resurface? And how many — disaffected, armed with a high-powered rifle and an Internet-sharpened ideology of racism and hate — will reenter the real world in the worst way imaginable?
The audience for the video and the manifesto will find the things it’s searching for. The Internet’s great centrifuge makes sure of that. Many already have found it, surely — if you or I can’t log on without seeing it, then anyone even passingly familiar with less reputable social media sites is already hours ahead of us, the centrifuge spinning new converts down. Where did they first wade in? A Korean dance video? A cat playing the piano?
Our science fiction fills us with visions of robots and artificial intelligence made sentient and bent suddenly on human destruction: Skynet’s fleet of Terminator robots stomping through a pile of skulls.
The reality is more mundane and more frightening.
Instead of stomping on our skulls, the Internet — this thing we made and lost control of — is invading them. It’s broken. And it’s deadly.