Gordon Campbell on ridding the Net of white supremacist propaganda

vigilYowzah. So there is to be a Royal Commission inquiry after all, into the mosque attacks – and it will be less focussed on the actions of the first responders on the day, and more on the prelude to the attack. Good. Obviously, the terms of reference (and timetable for reporting back) will still be crucial, but at least this endeavour will be able to operate somewhat at arms length from the government whose agencies will be under scrutiny. What on earth made SIS Minister Andrew Little think that it could ever be otherwise?

Although it won’t be a walk in the park, gun law reform will be an easier job than neutralising the Internet hate content that (a) recruited the Christchurch shooter, and (b) confirmed him in his beliefs. Obviously, free speech objections will arise over any attempt to regulate online expression, even when it conveys neo-Nazi sentiments. Still, the calls by National Party leader Simon Bridges to pre-empt the Royal Commission and unilaterally increase the SIS surveillance powers ahead of the RC’s findings seem foolhardy. That’s headless chicken stuff. Giving the SIS more power to look for the wrong things in more places can only leave the innocent feeling less safe.

Free speech or licence to recruit?

Most of the good arguments for not allowing hate manifestos to spread online were set out only a month before the mosque attacks, in the course of this Atlantic article.

In New Zealand though, the decision by Chief Censor David Shanks to ban the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto has already struck the Free Speech Coalition (and a few other commentators) as overkill. According to Shanks, his action to ban the document was not taken because of the manifesto’s ability to directly influence ordinary Kiwis, or recruit the young and impressionable. As Shanks indicated, the shooter’s manifesto is mainly aimed at (and is meant to inspire) the tiny minority of confirmed extremists who could be teetering on the brink of copycat action. That’s the Censor’s main concern. Alas though, such people won’t have any trouble in locating the shooter’s manifesto online.

Furthermore, it seems relevant in this instance that the country will soon be putting the gunman on trial for his actions. Surely, New Zealand society has to be open and robust enough to allow New Zealanders to read and reject his pathetic attempts at justifying the evil he has done. After all, the courtroom proceedings will be bringing the manifesto contents back into the spotlight, and excerpts from it will probably find their way into the media coverage. It seems very odd that this fragmented process will now – thanks to the Censor – have to sit alongside a ban on the document from which the fragments came.

Along the way, the courtroom coverage will inevitably undermine the efforts by media companies and politicians to deny the shooter notoriety by not mentioning his name. That may provide a fleeting sense of empowerment – and that’s fine – but in reality, that horse has well and truly bolted. Besides, the shooter is probably relishing the fact he’s being treated like Lord Voldemort, who also qualified for He Who Shall Not Be Named status. Thankfully, PM Jacinda Ardern seems determined to tackle online white extremism with ideas that go a bit beyond Harry Potter.

Spreading the Bad News

Obviously, the Net is where the shooter read about the exploits of his Norwegian counterpart Anders Breving Breivik. It is also where he read about the racist “replacement” theories of the French writer Renaud Camus. He had those beliefs confirmed by the videos posted by Camus’ acolytes, such as the Canadian racist Lauren Southern.

Last week though, Ardern took a significant first step by laying much of the responsibility for the dissemination of white supremacist messages where it belongs: with companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” she told Parliament. “They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit and no responsibility.”

Great. That stance is significant because… global pressure will be needed to change the core behaviours of the corporate giants involved. In June, the G20 meeting will be discussing the responsibilities ( and responses) of social media companies for the content they carry. Crucially, Facebook Live provided the livestream platform that incentivised the Christchurch shooter by guaranteeing him massive outreach for his actions, just as other murderers had previously livestreamed their crimes via the same Facebook function. Facebook Live needs to be scrapped, or at the very least a delay function installed to allow a significant moderating process to occur.

In similar fashion, the algorithms at Youtube utilise prior clicks to lead viewers further into darkness. You liked the Lauren Southern video? Well here’s something even worse. Anecdotally, a friend who clicked once on a Jordan Peterson video 12 months ago to see what all the fuss was about, is still being sent alt-right recommends by the Youtube algorithms. Algorithms that sensitive can surely be able to detect and neutralise neo-Nazi content. This terrific cartoon sums up many of the issues involved.

The robots won’t save us, either. Automated takedowns – which comprised the vast bulk of the 1.5 million takedowns that Facebook bragged about last week – can be readily circumvented if the footage is lightly edited and re-packaged. Incredible as it seems, Net publishers are not legally accountable under US law for what they carry on their platforms, if that content originated elsewhere. Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act protects Net publishers from being subject to the kind of legal penalties faced by traditional media companies.

An immunity clause in the Act states that no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Even so, these Net companies plainly have the ability to tackle the problem of white supremacist online content, if they so wish. Slack has shown the way forward by taking steps to remove racist hate speech from its platform:

Today we removed 28 accounts because of their clear affiliation with known hate groups The use of Slack by hate groups runs counter to everything we believe in at Slack and is not welcome on our platform… Using Slack to encourage or incite hatred and violence against groups or individuals because of who they are is antithetical to our values and the very purpose of Slack…

That’s a start. In recent years, much of Islamic State’s violent content and recruitment propaganda links have been purged from Facebook and Google, which suggests that if the will exists to remove and reduce white supremacist content it can be significantly reduced, at the very least. How so? Because public pressure becomes effective when it reaches levels that impact on profit margins.

Ardern vs Facebook

How then, to mobilise public opinion on the scale required? Well… maybe Ardern could bring her newly minted global celebrity to bear by politely asking Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to take part in a public debate with her on the reforms to Internet practice that are required. New Zealand has some form in this regard. Prime Minister David Lange did pretty well in a debate with Rev Jerry Falwell on nuclear weapons at Oxford in 1986. Hundreds of millions of people around the world would watch an Ardern vs Zuckerberg debate, and such an encounter would advance the issues dramatically.

Beyond that point… and for reasons I’ll go into below, it would be a mistake to start out by increasing the monitoring of hateful online content. That’s not because of free speech considerations, either. There are structural factors – law changes, technology fixes, the re-focussing of the priorities of the security services – that are easier to implement first, and which would be much safer for the workers who would otherwise be tasked with monitoring this dreadful stuff.

Start with the UN then, but go further. As mentioned before in this column, our anti-terrorism legislation currently implements a UN list of Islamic extremist and criminal organisations, and places funding bans and travel sanctions on the entities and individuals appearing on that list. At the UN and locally, we should be prepared to expand such lists to include white supremacist groups and individuals.

Such travel bans can be very effective, as reflected in Australia’s recent decision to reverse its initial granting of an entry visa to the British racist Milo Yiannopoulos after he made Islamophobic comments about the Christchurch mosque attacks. Somehow, Yiannopoulus had previously passed the good character test that had prevented Chelsea Manning from entering Australia. That distinction says a lot about what’s wrong with the pre- Christchurch perceptions of the risk posed by white supremacists.

Those previous lenient perceptions of local neo-Nazi groups have been shared for a very long time by the leadership of our security agencies which – in line with priorities that have been promoted by our partners in the 5 Eyes security alliance – have focussed their (and our) security efforts on combatting Islamic radicalism and its recruitment efforts, despite the minimal relevance this has ever had to New Zealand conditions. This epic failure of focus by our security services now needs to analysed with rigour by the Royal Commission.

In the context of the mosque attacks, the usual protections afforded to classified security information originating from overseas will also need to be treated by the Royal Commission with healthy scepticism. In the past, this flow of classified information merely seems to have distracted the security services from pursuing the actual threat. Arguably, losing access to some of it would be a net gain – if we want an SIS that mainly serves New Zealanders, and not so much the interests of its overseas counterparts.

Even so, the Royal Commission will probably need to appoint a “special advocate” to peruse this material and advise the presiding judge as to its public admissibility. Frankly, it would defeat the entire purpose of having the Royal Commission if the security services were allowed to drop a cone of secrecy over its deliberations.

Technology fixes. Facebook Live has to go. Also, the Youtube algorithms have to be amended and Twitter’s capacity to retweet white supremacist hate content needs to be tackled, head on. To their credit, some local telcos have already taken action to block access to white supremacist message boards and content.

Content Fixes. This isn’t simply a hate speech vs free speech issue. It is easy to forget that its also a workplace health and safety problem in that – from what we know already about the fate of Facebook moderators – watching a whole lot of this stuff is really, really bad for you. Routinely, the people doing the monitoring and takedown of offensive Facebook content can come to exhibit symptoms very similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An alarming study of the horrendous work conditions experienced by Facebook moderators is available here.

Basically, Facebook contracts out this time consuming and highly stressful work to the foot soldiers of the precariat, who get paid at minimum wage levels. As well as the risk of PTSD reactions, there is evidence that prolonged exposure to jihadi material has previously lead to a significant level of recruitment among the moderators. (Watching a lot of jihadi propaganda recruits people for jihad. Watching a lot of racist propaganda generates racists. Who knew?)

So if the SIS really has been extensive monitoring white supremacist hate groups for the past nine months, as SIS Minister Andrew Little dubiously claims that they have, maybe we need to be re-assured by him about what health and safety protections have been put in place to protect the mental wellbeing of the SIS staff or contractors tasked with prolonged exposure to this vile online material? Anecdotally, workers in the Censor’s office also used to suffer from prolonged exposure to the stuff they had to watch and classify.

As I’ve indicated before, there is a capability issue here. A lot of online communication is couched in cynical, trolling modes of expression where the sabotaging of expectations for comic effect is a standard hook for so much of the social media sharebait. Is the SIS capable of recognising and responding to the postmodern nature of Net discourse? Sure, some white supremacist content is old school racism, as blatant as a jihadi video, but much of it isn’t. For example : the Proud Boys, a violent US hate group, make a point of trolling the regulators with a group charter that claims to abhor violence. The group’s members are also known for wearing the preppy US equivalent of Bob Charles golf shirts:

Like much of the young, internet-fluent alt-right, the Proud Boys intentionally don’t take themselves too seriously, a strategy that conveniently opens the door for them to denounce any kind of controversy that might arise. They show up to protests wearing black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts, have a whole charter’s worth of inside jokes and in general seem a bit more media and internet savvy than hardline white nationalist groups, some of which Facebook has managed to clear out in the last year.

Violence is supposedly a no-no, but in practice, that’s a joke:

Unlike some less strategic and internet-savvy portions of the far right, [the] Proud Boys are careful not to openly encourage pre-emptive violence. Still, the Proud Boys do encourage retaliatory violence, going so far as to enshrine physical altercations in its organizational hierarchy.

So… as white racism has become more sophisticated – and media-savvy communicators like Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux are prime examples of the trend – it is apparently succeeding in injecting its toxins into the mainstream of political debate. Racist ideas formerly taboo – because they promote violence, hate and social division – are being sanitised as mere options along the political spectrum. If love really is going to triumph over hate, the lovers are going to need to get organised. Because the haters are on a recruitment drive.

Footnote One. Fine that PM Jacinda Ardern is doing a stellar job of taking care of the nation, but you have to wonder sometimes about who is taking care of her, to ensure she doesn’t burn out in the process. Frankly, it seems utterly crazy after the recent rounds of stress that Ardern will be flying to China on a Sunday, staying only one full day and then flying back here by the Tuesday. Yet at the post-Cabinet conference yesterday she was asked why she was going to China at all, during the nation’s time of need. Hey, maybe it was because she’d been hassled so much recently for NOT going to China.

Footnote Two: Foreign Minister Winston Peters should dial back the self-praise for how he’s supposedly ‘changed the narrative’ originally used by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to blame this country for the mosque attacks. In fact, Erdogan is the cynical master of good cop/bad cop messaging. Abroad he pedals the softline he knows that West wants to hear, via obliging Washington Post and NYT op eds. At home, it’s a quite different story.

So he praised Ardern in the final paragraph of a Washington Post op ed? Big deal. Both before and after Peters’ visit he has continued to show a series of home crowds a number of disturbing excerpts from the shooter’s attack video. Peters is deluding himself if he thinks anything much has changed. This is just more of Erdogan’s basic operandi.

Here’s how it works. In his Western media op eds, Erdogan has fiercely criticised the Saudi persecution/murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That concern is hypocritical, and tactical. Last year, Reporters Without Borders rated Turkey a dismal 157th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Together, Turkey, China and Egypt account for over half the world’s journalists currently in prison. Finally, Erdogan praised Donald Trump in the NYT for his intended withdrawal of US troops from Syria, without mentioning his own plans to attack the Kurdish militia this would have left vulnerable.

As he whips up the crowds at home with the shooter video for electoral gain, he is continuing to make New Zealanders less safe in the region. Peters thinks we’ve ‘changed the narrative’? Dream on. Just how many ordinary Turks at Erdogan’s political rallies does Peters really think are holders of online subscriptions to the Washington Post?

Footnote Three: Dealing with white supremacist propaganda may be the immediate concern, but it isn’t the only problematic online content. Anti-vaccination propaganda is also disseminated online. It consists of a similar brew of bogus science and irrational prejudice, and it, too, causes physical harm to the innocent. Only a few weeks ago, the anti-vaxx movement directly contributed to a measles outbreak in the same city, Christchurch. At some point, Facebook, Twitter and Google need to be made accountable for disseminating material that causes physical harm to others, whatever the content involved may be.

Song for Erdogan

Next time Winston Peters is out for karaoke night with the Turkish president, maybe this old Max Romeo tune would send an appropriate message: