While the victims were shot to death mid-prayer, netizens witnessed the mindless attack as the accused streamed it live on social media platforms.
In what has been called one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in New Zealand — an otherwise peace-loving country — gunmen mercilessly open fired in two mosques, in the city of Christchurch, on Friday killing 49 people and seriously injuring over 20 — including children as young as three years old. Many of these innocent victims were refugees and immigrants who had been living peacefully in the neighbourhood for a substantial number of years. The gunmen barged into two separate mosques, with over 200 people praying inside, and carried out the ghastly pre-planned attack. It has been speculated as a hate-crime after an online hate-laced anti-refugee and anti-muslim manifesto was found posted by one of the arrested.
Along with the manifesto, an insensitive, sensational live streaming of the incident from the point of view of the gunman was uploaded on social media. Before this video could be taken down from Facebook, it was mirrored by multiple other websites. On Reddit, a news aggregation and discussion website, a thread called ‘Watch People Die’ shared the same video. After a constant re-sharing and online narration of the incident and the video, a Reddit user posted, “Sorry guys but we are locking the thread out of necessity here. The video stays up until someone censors us. This video is being scrubbed from major social media platforms but hopefully, Reddit believes in letting you decide for yourself whether or not you want to see unfiltered reality. Regardless of what you believe. This is an objective look into a terrible incident like this. Remember to love each other (sic)”
However, is it really possible to look “objectively” at a viral video of a speculated hate crime? What drives the voyeuristic nature of consumers towards such gory and violent visuals?
Priyanka Padhi, a psychologist explains, “We as a society like to see things that shock us. That’s why we used to watch executions on the square. It’s why we slow down on the freeway to view that car accident. And what drives this is curiosity. It’s about our minds trying to make sense of it all. Trying to figure out how such things can happen, why they happen, how they happen, and how we would feel if it happened to us. That’s why such videos become so successful in circulating throughout. However, with social media, the risk is without knowing the truth of the video or the origin of it, people start forwarding it. Thus the technology that is faster than lighting can have a negative impact on others by the way it becomes proactive in forwarding news and post.”
Can netizens alone be entrusted with the responsibility to tackle such incidents of “unfiltered reality” that caters to the voyeuristic nature of people to watch and glorify violence? Or should social media sites and internet service providers self-regulate and moderate the content that reaches the public domain?
Dr Usha Raman, who teaches Digital Culture in the University of Hyderabad opines, “In terms of the voyeuristic tendencies that people have, I do not think that it has to do with social media particularly. Because if you think about it, violent spectator sports have been always been there. Social media only feeds that further and faster. I do not think it is a new impulse.” Speaking about the debate around letting people decide for themselves what they want to watch or prioritising a need to regulate content on social media, she says, “I think lately there has been a lot of discussion around the responsibilities that platforms have. And platforms that are subscriber based and closed, such as WhatsApp, as well as platforms like Youtube or Facebook where there is moderation. There does exist a process of content moderation, but the ways in which the content kicks in is something that needs to be regulated further. The debate in the scholarly circle is that platforms have to take responsibility. Asking the government to regulate is one thing, but because the platforms are making money off the viewership... they also need to cater to more stringent moderation., They can’t just say, ‘Oh it is up to the viewers’.”
Comedian Hasan Minhaj in one of the episodes of his Netflix series, Patriot Act, had pointed out that social media sites are considered as content platforms and not content publishers, unlike newspapers or magazines. And therefore, social media sites often get away from the law without many consequences as they do not take responsibility for the content itself. He also mentions that the little content moderation that happens on these websites is a tricky affair as content moderators have to comb through more massive amounts of data, that reportedly gives them 1.26 seconds to decide whether the content matches the websites’ community standards.
Supreme Court advocate Pavan Duggal, who is also a cyber law expert says that both the internet service providers and user have to take on the responsibility as members of the society. “Freedom of speech and expression in the social media’s context does not give a license to disturb the mindset of the masses. Social media is not the custodian of all truths and therefore there is a need for self-restraint and due diligence that has to be the guiding factor of all stakeholders. Societal values may differ from society to society but content that is likely to create public disorder can have massive ramifications and permanent scarring on minds including innocent minds. Indian cyber laws are not at all equipped to handle this kind of situation prevailing in social media,” he says.