Here’s one way to counter the spread on social media of hate crimes like the New Zealand mosque shooting

Police attempt to clear people from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Short of regulating extremist content on their platforms, tech giants such as Facebook and YouTube should offer countering or alternative viewpoints, says Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice.

McDevitt, who has studied hate crimes since the 1990s, says that social media has become a “breeding ground” for people like the suspected perpetrators of the shooting during a prayer service Friday afternoon at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 people were killed and more than 30 were injured.

The attack was reportedly forewarned on Twitter and 8chan, livestreamed on Facebook, and shared widely on YouTube and Reddit. As videos, posts, and photos of the massacre proliferated, the social media giants hosting the content came under scrutiny for not acting more quickly to stop it from spreading.

“Social media has become a breeding ground for some of these folks, and one of the things that’s troubling, or at least a challenge, is: Do we stay away from those sites, or do we go in and try to counter-program the sites, try to offer an alternative point of view?” McDevitt says.

Jack McDevitt. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Rather than letting extremist ideas run unchecked, McDevitt suggests that tech companies approach the problem the way colleges do when they host a controversial speaker on campus.

“If a speaker comes to a college campus and says, ‘I want to talk about hate and talk about groups that don’t belong in our society,’ one of the things we tend to do is to have alternative speakers on campus who present the alternative point of view, and I think we have to do that on social media as well,” he says.

In an increasingly globalized world, the internet makes it easier for people to find camaraderie in others who share their views, McDevitt says. In the case of perpetrators such as those reportedly behind the Christchurch attacks, social media enables them to meet others who reinforce their biases, and it allows them to spread their ideas, no matter how radical, with only the click of a mouse.

“Our research on hate crime offenders is that they’re surprised when the society comes and arrests them or blames them for the crime, because they think people share their biases and think that nobody will care if they act,” says McDevitt.

A contributing factor in this “globalization of hate” is that ideas spread faster because it is an English-speaking world, says Gordana Rabrenovic, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern.

“We have to be responsible for what we are saying, and we’re responsible because we reach this large audience,” she says.

Gordana Rabrenovic. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

McDevitt says the incident bore similarities to others that have preceded it, particularly in the United States, where mass shootings are commonplace. Similar to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the perpetrators carefully planned their attack and targeted their victims at a time when they were especially vulnerable, he says.

“It’s just so sad when people are attacked while they’re practicing their religion—any religion,” he says. “It’s just such an intrusion into who we are as individuals that it’s incredibly sad and incredibly threatening.”

The greatest commonality among perpetrators of mass shootings, according to McDevitt and Rabrenovic, is that they tend to blame groups that are different than them for their misfortunes, and they mischaracterize those communities as criminals. Before the Christchurch shooting, someone who appeared to be the gunman posted links to an 87-page manifesto reportedly filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas. In the manifesto, the gunman allegedly referred to President Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while deriding him as “a policy maker and leader.”

Rabrenovic, who is also an associate professor of sociology and education at Northeastern, says the lesson is that “we have to keep our leaders responsible, because they set the stage.”

“They have a stage through the mass media. That’s how the messages get replicated, because the media picks them up, and they talk about them and then legitimize them.”

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