It was the sort of news that still sickens and appals, but, tragically, no longer surprises. On Wednesday last week, the news started to filter through from Halle in eastern Germany that a gunman had tried to gain access to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and, failing in that, went on the rampage in the streets outside, killing two passers-by. It is a tragedy of the kind by which, sadly, the passage of time is now marked.
At Tech Against Terrorism, we work to support the global tech sector against the exploitation of their services by terrorists and violent extremists. We try to prevent the spread of violent and provocative images and content, robbing those who would do us harm of a platform to peddle their hatred. It’s an enormous and complicated task, and one which requires hand-in-glove co-operation: between government and industry, between the media and regulators, between would-be censors and civil society. But gradually, painstakingly, we are developing a protocol to cover exactly this sort of situation, in which a terrorist suspect live-streamed his attack and attempted to disseminate his material as widely as possible. We are creeping towards a crisis protocol, and the Halle attack caught us in the middle of this process.
Through dedication and hard work, we have been able to stem the flow of information from this dreadful attack. The live stream was, we estimate, seen by about five people, but it was recorded and has subsequently been shared on various sites like Telegram. Most of these sites are co-operative and will remove or block graphic violent images, but some maintain their editorial independence a little more robustly. Importantly, though, most platforms have demonstrated their willingness to engage with this process: For example, after the Halle shooting, staff at Facebook were up all night making sure no harmful or inappropriate images were shared publicly.
Enter the Daily Mail. The newspaper, edited by Geordie Greig, decided, for presumably commercial and sensationalist reasons, to publish syndicated images of the dead victims, contrary to the prevailing spirit of industry protocols. I found it a surprising, distressing and outrageous editorial decision; for a mainstream media outlet to jeopardise the hard work that government, civil society and the tech industry has been doing, giving violence the oxygen of publicity to make a political point and a quick profit. The Daily Mail ought to reflect on its stance, repent and apologise, and work more closely with potential allies in future to make sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.
Obviously I don’t blame them for the existence of the pictures. Barely a handful of people may have seen the footage of the attack live, but it only takes one to record it, and the multiplying effect of technology means that the genie is out of the bottle. But the Daily Mail’s behaviour was thrown into sharp relief by the way in which other outlets, broadcasters and platforms responded. Twitch, Amazon and Facebook knew about the attack and the footage of it almost straight away, and quickly moved to contain it. Newspapers like Bild, Der Spiegel and the Guardian acted responsibly and did not show graphic images of the dead bodies. But the Daily Mail did, showing no restraint or ethical responsibility. Hundreds of thousands of people will have been traumatised by these pictures. Why?
In a free society, collaboration between tech, government, and civil and wider society will only ever be voluntary. We have to demonstrate to our partners that it’s in their best interests to be responsible and observe basic norms of decency and humanity. I offer my sincerest praise and thanks to those newspapers and websites which showed thought and restraint this week, and their efforts made a huge difference. To those who didn’t, I only ask that they think again. That they consider not what interests the public but what is in the public interest. That they ask themselves, quietly and with reflection, ‘what should we have done?’ I’m satisfied that I know the answer.
- Adam Hadley is the director of Tech Against Terrorism, an initiative launched and supported by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED).
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