YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have been struggling to keep video of the Christchurch attack offline, with new versions being uploaded as quickly as they can be taken down, while many traditional media sites including MailOnline, the Sun, and the Mirror hosted edited videos of the same footage.
Facebook, where a man claiming to be the attacker livestreamed footage of the shootings, removed the original video about an hour later, but by that time copies of the footage had started to circulate across other social media sites.
Facebook’s community standards explicitly ban “individuals engaged in mass murder” from having a presence on its network, and the company has deleted the account associated with the suspect. But eight hours after the attack videos were still live, obscured behind a warning that they may “show violent or graphic content” but not deleted.
Traditional news outlets have taken starkly different positions. MailOnline’s version of the story features an autoplaying clip of 18 seconds of the suspect’s livestream, showing him leaving his car, weapon in hand, cutting it as he enters the front door of Al Noor mosque on Deans Avenue. There was a version of the clip autoplaying on its homepage.
The Sun took a similar approach. A spokesman for the paper told the Guardian: “We recognise that in the aftermath of horrific events such as these there will be sensitivities around reporting, and we take those responsibilities seriously.
“We have thought long and hard about how much of the easily available material currently on social media we should host on our site in order to shed light on this barbarous attack and the twisted ‘motive’ behind it. We have not published any video which depicts any act of actual violence, nor have we published or linked to the hate-filled manifesto.”
On the Mirror’s website, a longer clip of the same video led the story, showing the same footage of the attacker entering the mosque, cutting over the footage of the attack, and resuming the clip as the gunman walks back out of the building towards his car. That video was removed following inquiries from the Guardian, and the paper’s editor later apologised, saying “It is not in line with our policy relating to terrorist propaganda videos.”
Tech companies said they were working to keep the videos off their sites, following requests from groups including the US-based Muslim Advocates to remove the footage.
Mia Garlick, of Facebook New Zealand, said: “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act. New Zealand police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video.
“We’re also removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we’re aware. We will continue working directly with New Zealand police as their response and investigation continues.”
On YouTube, uploaded clips were initially presented as “inappropriate content”, hidden from underage users but available for logged-in adults to watch if they actively consented. As the company’s moderation work kicked in, the most graphic videos were removed, but edited versions with the most explicit violence removed remained available on the site.
A recent change to YouTube’s search policy has helped keep the most graphic videos hidden: if the site recognises a particular search term, such as the alleged shooter’s name, as related to news, it explicitly boosts video from news organisations. Videos from sources including the Guardian, CBS News and ABC News were presented ahead of edited re-uploads of the attack itself.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “Our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy. Shocking, violent and graphic content has no place on our platforms, and is removed as soon as we become aware of it. As with any major tragedy, we will work cooperatively with the authorities.”
Twitter also tried to take down the most egregious re-uploads. A company spokesperson said: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the shootings in Christchurch. Twitter has rigorous processes and a dedicated team in place for managing emergency situations such as this. We will also cooperate with law enforcement to facilitate their investigations as required.”