Following last month’s shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the world recieved another reminder of social media’s new and potentially disturbing contribution to such scenarios — both in the investigation process and, horrifically, in the real time sharing of graphic video content captured during the shooting. As law enforcement worked to deescalate the crisis in person, social media webmasters fought a very different battle on the cyber front, scrambling to contain and block videos of the attack; this resulted in unprecedented action taken on popular outlets like Reddit, where several long standing — albeit morbid  — threads depicting tragedy and human death were finally removed.

The viral implications of the Christchurch footage are by no means the first of their kind, but the gravity of this particular event has stoked an increasingly relevant question: how can social media and the ever-changing face of the news media vet and ultimately eliminate the promotion and/or sharing of violent attacks — especially those outlets allowing live streaming at will?

A new kind of damage control

Following the events of Christchurch, social media communicators were left to grapple with an influx of shooting-related video content, some of which was being uploaded as quickly as it was being taken down. Much of this process hinged on countering viral activity with widespread communication, with sites like Facebook and Youtube directly reaching out to followers and encouraging them to ignore, report, and forgo sharing such videos until they could be removed en masse.

Soon, responding law enforcement officials were forced to utilize their own social platforms, taking a similar approach in warning the public of the videos. The unfortunate reality, in this case, was that this specific message was hard to firmly convey amidst a stream of updates stemming from the live crisis itself, allowing unvetted videos to seamlessly slip through the cracks, shielded by the very chaos it strived to depict.

Broader implications

Given the frantic nature of the Christchurch scenario, paired with the clear challenges experienced during social media post, false media coverage and video removal efforts, a primary fear has been the threat of subsequent attacks; this essentially put everyday social media users in a position where, by simply clicking “share” or by downloading and re-uploading a violent video, they can single handedly amplify terroristic urges in fuel the potential for copycat attacks. Inevitably, this notion warrants a broader discussion on current social media censorship guidelines and the ways they are enforced. Worse, the implications to character and reputation are far more entrenched, as dated or incorrect coverage from blogs, media posts and/or sensational opinion pieces are attached to one’s online searches forever – further spreading damaging misinformation that carries an emotional and physical cost to those affected.

Looking ahead, the issue boils down to a need for increased accountability, editorial supervision and self awareness from web outlets. Some countries have regulated search engines to have mechanisms for the removal of content, which seems like a good idea mirroring the due process changes in the criminal justice reform effort. This is not just something needed from fairness and legal perspectives, but from the observations of the security & psychological communities that have seen a direct correlation between media/social media coverage and the increased frequency of terrorism & active attacks.

Gone are the days of social media’s perceived harmlessness; it has sadly become yet another vehicle for both senseless violence and popularization of that violence, and while we continue to learn and innovate as an increasingly cyber-based media diet, we must remain proactive and aggressive to mitigate damage done to affected loved ones and innocent, law abiding web users alike.

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP is the former Director, Office of Investigations for the American Board of Internal Medicine and a nationally-recognized subject matter expert in security & public safety. He has served on collegiate advisory boards and for three terms on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection.