BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Forty-nine people are dead this morning, dozens others injured. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: This time it was on the other side of the world.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Forty-nine people killed in a shooting massacre at two mosques. The gunman live streaming the horror. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Not Pittsburgh, not Charleston, not Santa Barbara, not Jeffersontown, Kentucky. But it was as familiar as it was distant–white man, anger, racial hatred, guns, death. It was like traveling someplace exotic and finding a McDonald's. Terrorism it's American franchise with all these uniformity that goes with it–horror, tears, and even before the victims are identified, the search for answers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Why, why, why, why would you do this?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Why he did it. I don't think we'll ever really know. I mean the depths of his mind is, it's impossible to understand. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: No, not really. We knew immediately because as the franchise operators guide dictates, the killer told us.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The suspect posted a racist manifesto online. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Of course manifesto.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He, in his manifesto talked about the fact that he saw President Trump as a symbol for renewed white identity.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He was trolling. He thanked Pewdiepie and then said that Candice Owens was his biggest inspiration.
BOB GARFIELD: And many in the media did just what he planned for them to do: spread his half baked and paranoiac ideology. Not to mention the at least one and a half million people who uploaded a video of the live streamed attack to Facebook in the first 24 hours following the event. And it worked for the same reason the Big Mac is reliably delicious wherever in the world you order it. Franchisees know how to make the special sauce. But in an especially meta phenomenon, in the aftermath of Christchurch, the media were aware of what they were doing as they did it. And some against all impulses of who, what, when, where, why resisted amplifying the killer's twisted ideology or even mentioning his name. Here's New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
JACINDA ARDERN: I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost Rather than the 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. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: In this hour we will examine the tension between the quest for understanding and the proliferation of evil. And we'll begin with Joan Donovan director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard's Shorenstein Center. Because those franchisee rules are now well understood she says, the media in the aftermath of Christchurch actually comported themselves better than in the past.
JOAN DONOVAN: I facetiously have been declaring that we're winning because one of the main things that I've been asking for since 2016 is that journalists stop calling white supremacists for validation and verification about white nationalist and white supremacist ideas. So the fact that we're not seeing new white supremacist platformed in the media is an amazing outcome of journalists learning from the past. Other things that I've been really happy to see, very few journalists are directly linking to the manifesto. Of course, we're still seeing some screenshots and that's a problem, but overall journalists are avoiding what we would call lurid curiosity–explaining and annotating this manifesto and linking directly to it. And I think that that's important because when we link to these things outside of our own articles, we invite our audiences to move away from our own explanations and framings and into the anonymous forums which heroize this attacker. It's very important for journalists, as well as researchers, not to allow attackers as well as white nationalists and white supremacists to drive our attention to their issues and their claims.
BOB GARFIELD: God help us all if he posts a manifesto. We can't resist a manifesto.
JOAN DONOVAN: I think one of the problems that we're also having, and we need to address, is the degree to which we even give ideas like this terms we might use for artists are great thinkers. The notion of the manifesto here, this is not really a manifesto. It's really disjointed. It makes reference to a bunch of different incoherent ideas. And in that sense, it's much more like a rant or a screed. The other thing that we have to understand is that this screed functions a lot more like a press kit. We're also not going to get the conversation in the public that we need about Islamophobia. If we focus on this person's words and ideas.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so let's say the mainstream press has learned from the past, does it matter? If the problem is proliferation and meme-ification and glorification, doesn't the larger responsibility fall on the social networks–Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube? Facebook took down a million and a half posts of the original massacre livestream, which is an astounding intervention but ultimately just a drop in the bucket. This is not a rhetorical question. It's a question.
JOAN DONOVAN: Yeah so when we talk about amplification, we do have to understand that the distribution of content online, be it journalists, articles or user generated content, is different from the ways in which the press has acted as a gatekeeper in the past. But I will say that the press still holds significant authority within the minds of the public as the first draft of history. And these are the documents that are going to survive this moment in Internet history. So for instance, algorithms are not stable. So in a week from now, we're going to see changes to what shows up on the first page of Google. In a month from now, we're going to see even more radical changes in terms of what happens when you search for Christchurch. So it's important that we do journalism today so that other social scientists and historians have a record of what happened. But amplification is a passing problem, it's a problem of now. And I should say that this was a choice that Facebook made to take this content down. One of the things that we've noted in the content moderation policies of Twitter, for instance, is that they don't take down certain posts that they consider newsworthy even if they are breaking their Terms of Service around harassment or hate speech or incitement to violence. And so we have to recognize that the platform companies are making a choice but they haven't really developed a code of ethics or a set of principles about amplification that, I think, now that this event has happened that they will have to do in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: On this show we've often reported about the conflict of interest that faces the platforms. They literally profit in dollars and cents from the interests of malicious actors and just the morbid curiosity and impulses of billions of users. Now in the aftermath of something like Christchurch, it's of course easy and important to ask tough questions of the press and to demand accountability from the platforms. But in some ways, does not the fault lie within users–within us?
JOAN DONOVAN: One of the things that the research that I did at data and society is really focused on, is the way in which the profit incentives on platforms misalign with society or user interest. That is to say that if I post more and more extreme content, if I use my livestream to do something horrific in order to call attention to something, I'm really incentivized by that platforms business model to do so. We cannot know what the intent of many of the 1.5 million uploads on Facebook were, but these aren't just people that support this ideology. Some of these are looking to upload the content for click bait. We can know that some of them were profit driven.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess what I was getting at is that, like you, I am also extremely suspicious of the 1.5 million uploads of that video–and I suspect the worst. But to tell you the truth, I'm much more concerned with the whatever it is about human nature that makes this ecosystem survive.
JOAN DONOVAN: In 2015, when I turned to studying hate movements online I was really horrified to see the amount of places that you could go to if you were interested in white supremacy or white nationalism. And I can't say though that that felt all that different from the communities that I was exposed to as a young punk rocker in Boston where there were a lot of skinheads who were doing active recruitment at different clubs. And I've seen people fall into those traps of trying to make meaning out of their lives by hating others and unfortunately, you know, the Internet can do many things for many people. But we've also reached a scale now where we're not talking about small subcultures online. We're not talking about interest groups online. What really scares me about the ways in which these communities foment their rage online is the degree to which they're becoming internationally networked. But in a strange way I'm hopeful that the good nature of others will be able to overcome this as we face and expose this undercurrent online.
BOB GARFIELD: Joan, thank you so much.
JOAN DONOVAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Joan Donovan is the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard's Shorenstein Center.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, getting into the heads of the fanatics. This is On The Media.