The Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15 shook New Zealand and prompted a powerful inquiry into the worst mass murder in the country’s history. The shootings were two consecutive terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday prayer. The first attack was live streamed on Facebook. The Australian gunman, a white supremacist, has been charged with 50 murders and 39 attempted murders.Reminders of loss are never far away from these families, whether it be an empty seat at the dinner table or Ramadan. The losses have sparked conversations around the globe about law enforcement, safety technology and more.
Christchurch First Responders
According to the New York Times, officers apprehended the suspect only 36 minutes after receiving the first emergency call. The police said they received the first call for help at 1:41 p.m., when mosques were packed for Friday prayer.
Forty-two people were killed during the six minute attack at the Al Noor Mosque. At 1:48 p.m., the suspect gets back in his car and drives towards his second target. Three minutes later, a siren can be heard on the video footage as he is driving to the second mosque. The gunman was gone by the time police arrived.
The police said a special armed tactical unit arrived at Al Noor four minutes after the first officers, or ten minutes after the initial emergency call. Still, it was not fast enough. The officers arrived to a horrific scene, with the dead and wounded outnumbering the city’s usual on-duty police force.
The gunman then attacked the Linwood Mosque, almost four miles east of Al Noor. The second mosque caused confusion for call centers. “Calls coming in from one, and then calls saying a second mosque, and people saying, ‘What? Do you mean this mosque or that one?’” said Chris Cahill, a detective inspector who is president of a local labor union for police officers.
Lateef Alabi, the imam leading prayers at Linwood, heard a voice outside at about 1:55 pm. He saw the gunman and two bodies on the ground out the window, and warned the congregation of about 80 people to get down. Abdul Aziz, who had been praying with his four sons at the time, bravely flung a handheld credit card machine at the attacker. Officers arrived at the mosque soon afterward, he and other survivors said. Witnesses credit Aziz’s bravery for slowing down the shooter until officers could intervene.
Authorities barricaded streets in an attempt to place the area on lockdown and search for the gunman. Police urged Christchurch residents to stay indoors and monitor the police website and social media. Local schools were placed on lockdown when police ordered students to not leave their classrooms between 2:20 pm and 6 pm that day. Desperate parents were unable to reach their children following the attacks. Some teachers were confronted by irate parents demanding their children be allowed to leave. Students were kept safe, but the incident brought to light issues with the school’s current safety protocols. School lockdown procedures will be reviewed urgently in New Zealand to improve communication. “One of the things that we’ve been told that when we go into lockdown what we must do … is to shut the school off from the wider community, but the communication between the two is the critical factor.” says Burnside High School principal Phil Holstein according to Radio New Zealand.
“It absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the arrest of the shooter, a former personal trainer from Australia who distributed a manifesto of white extremist hatred minutes before the rampage.
“We strongly believe we stopped him on the way to further attack,” said police commissioner Mike Bush. He told reporters that the gunman was en route to terrorize more people before officers intervened. The New Zealand Herald reports that police officers had just attended a training session on how to deal with armed offenders when they dragged the gunman from his car following the shootings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern paid tribute to the emergency workers who were first on the scene of the Christchurch attack. “I have no doubt that you saved lives… thank you for doing what you do… on our darkest, darkest hours and our darkest days,” she told them as she visited the Justice and Emergency Services precinct. The prime minister and the first responders later had a private meeting, during which the emergency workers were expected to brief her on their experiences.
Social Media Involvement
The shooter strapped a camera to his forehead to stream a live video on Facebook as he gunned down dozens of people who had gathered to pray. He teased his act on Twitter, announced it on the online message board 8chan and appeared to have posted a 74-page manifesto online. The video was mirrored around the world before the major tech companies could even react. The shooter left an internet breadcrumb trail leading up to the mass murder designed to maximize attention.
On March 27, representatives from four social media companies gathered with members and staff of the House Homeland Security Committee for a briefing. The focus: how the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism—an industry group composed of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft—had responded to the New Zealand shooting.
The shooter live-streamed the massacres for an hour, until New Zealand law enforcement asked the company to take it down. Facebook users had already re-uploaded the video of the murders on to the platform hundreds of thousands of times. The company said it removed about 1.5 million videos of the mass shooting in the first day after the shooting. And those are just the clips they were able to catch.
Two years ago, Facebook rolled out a counter-terror algorithm meant to block gruesome or inappropriate content from being posted on the site. The algorithm failed to block the live stream from the mosque on March 15. Congress met with Brian Fishman, Facebook’s policy director for counterterrorism, to discuss. The briefing was closed door, but according to The Daily Beast, Fishman said there was “not enough gore” in the video for the algorithm to catch it.
There is pushback against Fisherman’s defense. Facebook’s technology and filters have rapidly pulled down videos featuring copyrighted music and advertisements that criticize the platform. Although social media companies have made significant progress using machine learning to identify inappropriate or disturbing content, there is a long way to go.
Facebook has put up a blog to address the criticisms and explain how this happened:
“[Artificial Intelligent] systems are based on ‘training data’, which means you need many thousands of examples of content in order to train a system that can detect certain types of text, imagery or video.” The blog explains that this has worked for nudity, propaganda and graphic violence because there are large number of examples to better train the systems. “However, this particular video did not trigger our automatic detection systems. To achieve that we will need to provide our systems with large volumes of data of this specific kind of content, something which is difficult as these events are thankfully rare.”
Bad communities also worked together to continually re-upload edited versions of the video in ways designed to defeat Facebook’s detection. Six people appeared in a New Zealand court on April 15 on charges that they illegally redistributed the gory video.
Another challenge is discerning content that is visually similar but innocuous, like video game footage – “for example if thousands of videos from live-streamed video games are flagged by our systems, our reviewers could miss the important real-world videos where we could alert first responders to get help on the ground.”
Facebook hopes that their content moderators and flagging systems could someday help first responders in real-time. In November 2018, Facebook announced that more than 100 local governments and first responders with Facebook Pages are testing “local alerts.” There has not been an update on how the test is going yet. As much as social media can do in 2019, it is far from being a safety solution.