March Bedford Independent Guest Column – Christchurch & Social Media Reform

My monthly guest column for Bedford Independent focuses on the appalling terrorist attack in New Zealand and the need for decisive action by social media companies.

On Friday we woke to the terrible news that 50 innocent lives had been taken in New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack on two mosques.

This abhorrent act, carried out by a right-wing extremist, has shocked the world, and we all mourn with the people of Christchurch.

One of the most distressing aspects of the attack was that the terrorist live-streamed his appalling acts on social media. Footage was available many hours later and can still be found in less obvious areas of the internet.

Some of our national newspapers even carried the footage on their websites and one national paper uploaded the attacker’s full 74-page manifesto, deleting the document only after being accused of spreading terrorist material.

There must be a serious review of how these films were shared and why more effective action wasn’t taken to remove them and the associated material.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded quickly and decisively, pledging to cover the cost of funerals offering financial assistance for those affected – and most importantly promising changes to her country’s gun laws.

Her compassionate leadership has been praised globally. But this was an act of terror designed to send fear across the globe by use of digital media, and now the legislative response needs to reflect that.

The devastating attack on innocent men, women and children in their place of worship crystallises the case for social media regulation.

Social media platforms have become part of the terrorists’ tools, but they continue to deny their responsibilities as a publisher of the material.

Although Facebook claims that it removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2 million were blocked at upload, but questions remain about why an account displaying white supremacist material was not already banned.

The social media oligarchs have the tech to control output on their platforms but have so far resisted doing so.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg refused Parliament’s request to be questioned by MPs over data abuse in their inquiry into ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ which issued its final report in February.

The report was highly critical of media platforms; their illegal harvesting and use of our data and the threat to democracy in the UK and elsewhere.

Defenders of the media platforms and of extreme views always cite free speech as the reason why any regulation would be wrong, but free speech always comes with responsibility and does not trump the rule of law.

The right to freedom of speech certainly does not extend to the right to carry out or promote mass murders on the grounds of racial or religious hatred.

I am pleased that the Home Secretary agrees with Labour policy that new laws are urgently required to force the oligarchs of Silicon Valley to face up to their responsibilities, but meaningful action must be taken before more innocent lives are lost.

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