This week, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, will call on world leaders and tech companies to adopt the Christchurch Call, a pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent extremism content online.
Ardern acknowledges that civil society and academic and other leaders will play an essential role in ensuring that the call results in meaningful change. What is needed is a diverse range of people committed to finding practical solutions to eliminate violent extremist content online while also maintaining Internet freedoms and protecting human rights.
The immense power of social media has many advantages for civil society. At the same time, it provides unprecedented opportunities for individuals to go beyond disseminating hateful messages to broadcasting murderous acts in real-time in order to glorify themselves and inspire future terrorists. Indeed, social media terrorism is changing the face of terrorism as we know it.
In the past, attacks by Islamic groups, white supremacists, and, for that matter, school shooters, have been mostly separate phenomena, driven by separate grievances, ideologies, and circumstances.
Social media forms a common ground.
The ISIS supporter who shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 provided an unmistakable portrait of today’s social media terrorist. Obsessed with publicity, he browsed Facebook and other social media for signs of his act going viral during the shooting and three-hour standoff with police.
In February 2018, the Parkland, Fla., shooter posted at least four threats on social media for all to see (three were reported to police) before killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others.
According to FBI research, social media attention is becoming an increasingly common signature of today’s school and workplace shooters. Some 30 percent of active shooters, for example, construct a “legacy token” in the form of manifestos, videos, or social media postings for delivery to or discovery by others, either at the time of the shooting or shortly after.
The white-supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch shootings, in March, driven to gain attention on social media, went one step further. Shortly before the attack, he posted on 8chan — a message board site favored by extremists of all types — his intentions and directed readers to a Facebook page on which he then live-streamed his shooting spree, during which he killed 51 people and injuring 49 others while they worshipped.
Real-time terror was guaranteed to go viral — 1.5 million copies of the video were shared online before Facebook removed them.
The following month, Sri Lankan suicide bombers in six separate attacks in churches and hotels killed approximately 250 people. Before doing so, they took photos of themselves and made a video, which ISIS duly broadcast on social media, giving them the glory they craved, and extending their reach well into the future as the audience grows to include journalists, governments, academics, and ordinary people seeking to understand the latest atrocity in light of past attacks.
Social media is the ultimate platform for the glorification of the individuals who would cast themselves as terrorists — allowing them or groups that support them to write exposés and post selfies, group pictures, and prerecorded videos to exalt, venerate, and praise.
The common thread here — and in many other cases — is not a religion, not a specific grievance, nor a particular demographic. The common thread is the capacity for social media attention — before, during, and after an attack — to take control of the narrative in a way hitherto unseen.
A massive gulf separates social media terrorism and old-style terror tactics, and techniques for combating this phenomenon have yet to catch up. To do so, we will need more than information-sharing among law enforcement, more than new AI programs by tech companies to scrape content off the Internet, more than new counter-messaging programs by governments, and more than new academic research on what inspires violence online. We need all this, too, but we also need unprecedented cooperation across governments, law enforcement, tech companies, and academia.
The Christchurch Call is a terrific first step. Sustained networked cooperation crossing organizational, institutional, and international boundaries will be needed to collectively deliver on the high-level political commitments made by world leaders and tech companies in that call.
Only through an active network of committed, informed individuals can we hope to tackle social media terrorism.
Robert Pape is director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, based at the University of Chicago. He is participating in the Christchurch Call discussions in Paris.