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Sat, Dec. 07

Column | New Zealand and our social media conundrum

It isn’t Facebook’s fault that a gunman went on a murderous rampage and killed 50 people at two New Zealand mosques.

Social media abets evil. It doesn’t create it.

And now we wonder why the beast we’ve unleashed and fed has turned on us.

The prime minister of New Zealand, along with the leaders of other countries, is calling on social media outlets to do a better job – or a job – of policing their content. Asking Facebook or Twitter to be more discerning is sort of like throwing buckets of chum to hungry sharks and asking them not to eat too fast.

The massacre did reveal additional cracks in whatever passes as oversight on social media - the shooter’s manifesto was posted to Twitter before the attack; the attack itself was livestreamed and then the video posted.

Worse, though there were only about 200 views of the livestream of the murders, the video was viewed some 4,000 times on Facebook and YouTube said Monday that it removed tens of thousands of videos and terminated hundreds of accounts created to glorify the shooter, according to CNN.

But as horrifying as all of this is, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Social media provides a forum for everyone. Yes, we share photos and we see when one of our friends gets a new job or gets married. My mother, who still has a flip phone, also has a Facebook account so she can see photos of her grandchildren. We share jokes and amusing little memes. We find out who has passed away or moved to Florida.

We also advance agendas, sow grudges, shame others, spew hate and lash out. And we do it for attention, to get a reaction that will elevate us to some version of fame, or infamy.

And we say the New Zealand gunman crossed the line, as if there ever was one in a medium with virtually no rules or accountability.

We can avoid using the gunman’s name and not give him the notoriety he wants but he’s already achieved his perverse goal.

And this isn’t the first time a killer has posted video of his crime. It isn’t likely to be the last, simply because there will always be a market for new levels of depravity.

None of the 200 people who watched the livestream of the New Zealand mosque murders reported it to Facebook moderators. They simply watched, impassively, apparently desensitized to the real-time horror they were witnessing.

“When we see things through our phones, we imagine that they are like a television show,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, told the Associated Press. “They are at a distance, and we have no power.”

What social media has revealed, among other things, is that there is an almost unlimited market for narcissism, on both the large and small scale. It’s basic supply and demand.

The gunman who killed 12 people at a Southern California bar last year was posting on Facebook and Instagram immediately before and during the shooting, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In Georgetown, KY, a town of about 34,000 an hour north of Lexington, three people were injured in a knife fight last weekend. The trio connected on social media and were meeting Sunday “to settle their disagreement when everything got out of control,” reported the Georgetown News Graphic. The interesting part of the story is that police are now reviewing cell phone video of the incident. One of the participants apparently recorded the stabbing.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants social media companies to answer for what is posted.

“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 said in a speech to Parliament after the shootings.

It’s difficult to disagree with Ardern, but the reality is beauty and evil, utility and depravity, are all intertwined in these platforms, and there isn’t much that Mark Zuckerberg or anyone else can do about it.

Though Facebook has hired more moderators to supplement its machine detection and user reports, “you cannot hire enough people” to police a service with 2.3 billion users, Vaidhyanathan said.

He’s right, of course. We’re now forced to live with the monster we’ve created, and stand by, helplessly, as it devours us.

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