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New Zealand Mosque Shooting

Why terrorists want you to share their atrocities ... and why it might be bad for you

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — When one of the suspects of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand went live with their attack on social media, they did it with a purpose in mind: to get people to share it.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were quick to delete the gunman's livestream, though one version is believed to have been left up for as many as six hours. That short time frame was enough for internet users to download the source footage and upload new copies to the internet faster than internet companies can take them down.

"I think it's human nature to have curiosity about morbid things that happen around us," said Andy Carvin, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research lab. The DFRLab specializes in monitoring and investigates disinformation campaigns across the internet.

Carvin noted that there is nothing inherently wrong with "rubbernecking" at something like a car accident, as human beings are naturally curious. But when it comes to videos created by active shooters and terrorists, there is a danger.

"When they produce the video and share propaganda, the goal isn't just to spread the message," he said. "It's to create that kind of dissonance in people's heads where they start dehumanizing each other. And the more you dehumanize each other, the more it potentially leads to more violence."

The alleged attacker used an app designed for extreme sports enthusiasts called LIVE4 to initially share the 17-minute footage to Facebook, according to The Guardian. An 87-page manifesto was also uploaded to the internet, which espoused extreme right-wing imagery, historical references, anti-immigration sentiments and other forms of divisive ideology.

New Zealand-Mosque Shooting World Reaction
Members of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at Canada gather at the Baitul Islam Mosque during a special prayer in in Vaughan, Ontario, for the victims of the deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Multiple terrorists and extremist groups have used modern media technology to propagate their ideologies. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) became infamous for its publishing of graphic video and imagery content beginning in 2014. ISIS videos often featured high production value, which had not been previously seen in terrorist propaganda. Terrorism researchers and journalists have noted that the group used this content to attract recruits and spread its message over social media.

But sharing content from these perpetrators doesn't just spread their message, according to Carvin. It can also tax the mental health of the person watching and sharing it.

"Our minds aren't designed to deal with the cognitive dissonance, dissonance of seeing extreme violence, especially when it comes out of nowhere," Carvin said.

This does not necessarily mean watching violent videos will give you post-traumatic stress disorder, he added.

"But when you watch something that is of this level of violence, you are raising the possibility of inflicting a trauma upon yourself," Carvin said.

Many notable public figures, government officials and social media users discouraged their followers from reposting the suspect's video and manifesto shortly after they were posted.

"We would strongly urge that the link not be shared," police in New Zealand said in a statement after the Friday attack. "We are working to have any footage removed."

Nevertheless, the video and manifesto have been shared several times over. Carvin noted that there are already examples of people taking the footage and editing it into videos unrelated to the attack. But while he acknowledged there will always be bad actors and ways to find content from atrocities, it is up to the public at large to be resilient.

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