New Zealand Is Loath to Use Suspect’s Name to Avoid Amplifying His Cause – The New York Times

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The man accused of carrying out the attack that killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, is expected to represent himself in court, but the country’s prime minister said on Tuesday that she wants to do everything possible to deny him the attention he craves.

“He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in an address to Parliament. “But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

“And to others, I implore you,” she added, “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.”

Her comments — which included a demand for internet platforms like Facebook to do a better job controlling hateful content — reflect a global struggle that has caught this small, open and friendly country by surprise: how to avoid fueling fame for a man accused of killing and his message even as officials and the news media try to better understand the forces that led to his apparent radicalization.

The push to deny oxygen for what feels like a perpetual flame of hate has been gathering momentum ever since the attack, and reaches beyond the government.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s largest broadband providers published an open letter to the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google, calling on them “to be a part of an urgent discussion at an industry and New Zealand government level” about how to deny access to content created by the suspected killer, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28.

The companies — Vodafone NZ, Spark and 2degrees — acknowledged suspending access to websites that were hosting video footage of the Friday attacks that had been streamed live online. But they said there was only so much they could do without more engagement from the tech platforms.

“Internet service providers are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, with blunt tools involving the blocking of sites after the fact,” the companies said, adding that social media companies “have a legal duty of care to protect their users and wider society by preventing the uploading and sharing of content such as this video.”

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The Association of New Zealand Advertisers also said in a statement Tuesday that local businesses were considering pulling their ads from Facebook, questioning whether they wanted to be “associated with social media platforms unable or unwilling to take responsibility for content on those sites.”

“The events in Christchurch raise the question — if the site owners can target consumers with advertising in microseconds, why can’t the same technology be applied to prevent this kind of content being streamed live?” the group said.

Facebook, in an effort to combat the criticism, updated details Monday on how the gunman’s video of the shooting spread. The company said that video of the live broadcast was viewed 4,000 times, but it also said that within the first 24 hours it pulled about 1.5 million copied videos of the attack.

Of those, more than 1.2 million videos were blocked as they had been uploaded, and the company also said it cut off content that looked or sounded similar.

Missing from the data was the total number of views for all versions of the video.

[Read about how the Christchurch attack became an internet-native mass shooting.]

The gunman’s efforts were clearly choreographed for internet fame and to spread a message of hate. Minutes before the attacks started, he published a manifesto to message boards where white supremacists gather, and included a link to the page where the streaming video of the shooting would appear.

But experts say it may not be enough to focus just on that content. New Zealand, like many countries, has often struggled with how seriously to take white supremacy, offline and online.

Anjum Rahman, the head of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, reported that her organization had tried to warn the government for years about growing vitriol toward Muslims and the rise of the so-called alt-right in New Zealand. In an op-ed for The Spinoff, a news website, she said her organization had asked for help from New Zealand’s security agencies and had written a “comprehensive report” for the government five years ago, outlining the group’s concerns.

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“As far as we know, nothing concrete was done with that report,” she wrote.

In fact, one of the two mosques attacked Friday had pigs’ heads delivered to it in 2016 by men who gave Nazi salutes.

Jarrod Gilbert, a University of Canterbury sociologist who studies gangs in New Zealand, said that when Christchurch had a problem in the 1980s and 1990s with white supremacist skinheads, the authorities tended to dismiss them as a fringe group “because people never really wanted them here.”

He and other experts said it was important to distinguish between those gangs, which tended to draw lower-class and disenfranchised members, and the alt-right, which pulls in a wider demographic that’s more unpredictable and engaged with the theory and rhetoric of white nationalism.

“They’re entirely different, and this poses very different challenges,” he said. “The street thugs are easy to monitor, count, and counter; international online communities are very difficult to monitor.”

Part of the issue is that these groups are often private, hard to find and steeped in anonymity, and their words rarely translate into action.

And yet what the Christchurch attacks now show — according to government officials, including the prime minister — is that these groups need to be carefully watched because a handful of adherents may be motivated to act violently.

“There is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organization — they are new,” Ms. Ardern said Tuesday.

And in the aftermath of such attacks, the cycle of attention can amplify risk. Studies have shown that terrorists often try to up the ante from the last high-profile attack. Ms. Ardern said Monday that her government was dealing with a flood of copycat threats and messages of hate.

The multiplier effect could also be seen on websites where white supremacists have tended to gather. While websites for at least two white nationalist groups in New Zealand — the New Zealand National Front and Dominion Movement — were disabled in the wake of Friday’s shooting, cached versions still allow readers to view the immediate responses to attacks.

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On a cached site for the National Front, which has campaigned under the slogan, “It’s O.K. to be white,” reactions to the attack were divided. Some commenters expressed compassion for the victims, while others said the shootings were a “natural outcome.”

“This is ‘bad optics.’ I hope and pray that no one in the ethno-nationalist community has had anything to do with this,” one person wrote. “Because we know what’s coming: government crackdown, surveillance, increased gun control and an emboldened Antifa harassing us.”

Another person called the shootings a “brutal wake-up call” and said the victims deserved “no sympathy.”

A user called Celtic Warrior said, “Harsh medicine, indeed, but sadly, very necessary.”

The Dominion Movement is a year-old group that describes itself as a “fraternity of young New Zealand nationalists” united by the belief that “Europeans are the defining people of this nation and that they were essential in its creation.”

“We oppose the animosity and contempt this system holds for us and our people, we reject the entire concept of White guilt,” a cached version of its website reads.

As of Tuesday, the group’s Twitter and Instagram accounts had been suspended.

Whether these groups or others have a chance to amplify whatever Mr. Tarrant says when he appears in court — his next appearance is scheduled for April 5 — is still unknown. The judge in the case could ban cameras or find other ways to suppress information, according to lawyers.

Richard Peters, the duty lawyer at the suspected gunman’s first court appearance Saturday, said he didn’t know whether the man’s decision to represent himself would draw more attention to the case or less.

But for Ms. Ardern and many others, his efforts are best ignored, in court, and on the internet.

“I don’t have all of the answers now, but we must collectively find them,” she said. “And we must act.”


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