The terrorist attack in New Zealand began and ended on the social media platforms we were told would inaugurate a new era of openness, tolerance and understanding. Apparently radicalized online, releasing his manifesto online, and even livestreaming the attack, the alleged gunman followed in a pattern common to extremists of all kind, turning the massacre of individuals into a gruesome spectacle, available to all.
It is time for counter-terrorism specialists to move into the offices of social media giants. This horrific attack on peaceful worshipers at prayer is drenched in alt-right internet culture. Facebook, Google and Twitter need to take ownership of this crisis. For too long they’ve allowed hate to circulate effectively unchecked online; they seem overwhelmed by this problem and their feeble measures have not had the desired impact. But those facts do not exonerate them. In fact, it makes them part of the problem.
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Let’s be clear, social media is the lifeblood of the far-right. The fact that a terror attack was livestreamed should tell us that this is a unique form for violence made for the digital era. The infrastructure of social media giants is not merely ancillary to the operations of terrorists — it is central to it. And, as a former United Kingdom government adviser on anti-Muslim hatred, I am fully aware that social media giants assume a huge responsibility to prevent and stop hate speech proliferating on the internet.
An urgent need for internet regulation
It’s clear the internet giants cannot manage this alone; we urgently need a renewed conversation on internet regulation. It's not the whole answer, but so much more can be done that isn't. For instance, we need to create an organized reward system for users to report instances of online abuse or hate. Currently, the responsibility often lies with victims or algorithms.
We also urgently need to commission research on the links between anonymity and online abuse. Social media platforms must also develop methods that encourage or privilege identity verification. Other platforms have already innovated with this. For example, the dating app Bumble uses facial recognition methods for verification purposes.
And how about a new tax levied on large social media companies to raise funds for offline digital literacy and anti-discrimination initiatives, as well as provide resources to help underfunded police forces combat online hate?
Social media platforms operate with impunity
When Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed breaking up technology giants for their monopolistic practices, this was in-part no doubt motivated by a perception of social media giants operating with impunity, indifferent to intense concerns about their business practices.
Companies such as Facebook and Google should understand that refusing to acknowledge and respond to real concerns about radicalization, online abuse and harassment, and hate speech, will only further prejudice the public against them.
And the public has good reason to be concerned. We have been sold a narrative of social media as a great liberating force. Not surprisingly, it was the disruptors who have been liberated and the platforms have profited off this.
Perhaps it is now time to temper our expectations.
Terrorists from ISIS to white supremacists were quick to recognize the potential of anonymous communities to spread hate, and hate, like all forms of intolerance, has consequences. When you move the needle on public discourse towards greater aggression, you open the door for individuals to translate their rage into violent action. On Friday, in a peaceful corner of a very peaceful nation, we saw the horrific consequences.
Muddassar Ahmed is a former British government adviser on combating hate crime, a fellow at the German Marshall fund and on an advisory board at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @unitascomms.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Zealand mosque massacre proves social media giants don't deserve their power, freedom