It’s Easy to Despair and Do Nothing After the Halle Synagogue Shooting. But We Shouldn’t.
We don’t have the answers to stop terror attacks being live streamed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions
In March, there was the Christchurch massacre, when a gunman gleefully referenced popular memes while live streaming himself shooting dozens of Muslim community members. In April, there was the Poway, California synagogue shooting, when a Christchurch copycat attempted to live stream himself in the same manner, failed, but still managed to kill a woman and injure three others.
With the Halle synagogue shooting in Germany yesterday, live streamed broadcasts of the mass murders of Muslim and Jewish communities have officially become a trend.
I am an academic who studies the far-right online, and after these tragedies, people often ask me what we can do to stop this from happening again.
In these moments, I find myself at a loss for words. I can speak in great detail about the factors that cause this type of violence: institutional bigotry across generations; racism fueled by mass media and mainstream politicians; young male alienation, loneliness, and a sense of diminishing power, stoked by opportunists online; major technology platforms whose business models favor engagement and attention and thus often reward the exact kind of behavior at work; rising nationalist movements around the world; the gamification of social relations and performances online. But each and every one of these factors is so deeply entrenched that it can seem impossible to tackle to an extent that will lessen this form of violence.
Take all of them together, and it’s almost impossible to avoid a feeling of defeat, a sense that things are too far gone to ever make right.
Sometimes people ask if it would help to take away the livestream feature on web platforms. After all there is something uniquely horrifying about the live streaming of this violence. By filming their massacres in real time, shooters turn into performers, playing to an audience that cheers them on. They need not be part of an official terrorist organization, or have additional gunmen, to know they have a communal force behind them. The audience, in turn, gamifies the violence, counting the number of victims as victories. The videos, spreadable pieces of digital media, rapidly get disseminated, replicated, and remixed across multiple platforms. Some viewers may get normalized to the violence; others experience the fear the terrorist hopes to spread.
Taking away livestream capabilities would not solve racism or bigotry more broadly, but it could mitigate this specific type of horror.
And yet, substantial changes to livestream functions are incredibly unlikely in the current media ecosystem. The feature has become a valuable source of revenue for platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and it is the entire basis of platforms like Twitch (the Amazon-owned platform used to broadcast the Halle shooting this week).
Full-fledged entertainment industries have been born out of, and rely on, live streaming. People build careers as streamers, and live stream viewers find both compelling content and communities with which to share it. Platforms have no incentive to shut down the feature, and even if they did, many people’s lives would be negatively affected.
It’s almost impossible to avoid a feeling of defeat, a sense that things are too far gone to ever make right.
At the same time, each time a new live streamed shooting happens, I am haunted by something Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016 when Facebook first released live video as a feature. He claimed it supported “the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate.”
In this moment, he was (admittedly accidentally) prescient about the horrors this kind of feature could enable. We see this phenomenon happening again and again: technology companies charge ahead, building and releasing products and features based on financial incentives, with no care to the social and political impact, all the while claiming the development is both inevitable and empowering.
Then the world is remade in their technologies’ image, including the good, but also the bad and the ugly. When features get exploited by bad actors, tech platforms eschew responsibility and claim it is beyond their control. Or they assure the public they are doing everything in their power to stop the spread of harm. (Twitch, in the aftermath of Halle, said they were “ shocked and saddened” by the gunman’s actions, and that “Twitch has a zero-tolerance policy against hateful conduct, and any act of violence is taken extremely seriously. We are working with urgency to remove this content and permanently suspend any accounts found to be posting or reposting content of this abhorrent act.”)
Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it seems a weak defense; it simply reinforces the fact that companies are proactive and fast when it comes to releasing new revenue streams, but reactive and slow when minimizing harms. The platforms build Pandora’s boxes with little concern to what’s inside, and then they sell them to the public and tell us to open them.
In any case, we can’t go back in time and ask Facebook or any other companies to make different, more ethical choices. If live streaming is around to stay, we have to move forward in the world as it currently exists. Despite all this — my momentary losses of words and my pessimism about big technology firms and the features they build — I know the most important thing in these moments is resisting apathy and despair. One of the goals of the live streamed shootings is to normalize this kind of violence and weaken responses against it. Apathy and despair is exactly what the shooters want.
Small but important changes have happened even since March: for example, after the Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso shootings, 8chan’s service providers withdrew their support, taking a crucial site of far-right organizing offline. Of course, racial justice work and opposition to fascism isn’t as easy as removing a site or changing an algorithm. Technical releases are instantaneous, and meaningful social change is slow. Still, in a world where multitudes of Pandora’s boxes have been opened, it is crucial to fight against the horrors that get unleashed.