The Digital Asymmetry of the Christchurch Shootings

An act of terror by a few overshadows — online and off — a global youth protest against climate change

OnOn Friday morning in Christchurch, New Zealand, scores of students walked out of their classrooms. Inspired by the example of the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who last August began regularly staying out of school to demonstrate against inaction on climate change, the Christchurch students were among the first to take part in today’s Global Climate Strike, an international protest that will feature hundreds of thousands, even millions of students striking in more than 120 countries. At 1 p.m. local time, the students gathered in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, where they sent out tweets and Instagram posts meant to publicize their message: climate action now. They were hoping to seize the attention of not just anyone who might be passing by their protest, but the entire world — through the power of the internet. Their natural habitat.

At 1:40 p.m. local time, less than two miles away from Cathedral Square, a gunman entered Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque, where hundreds of worshippers were taking part in Friday Prayers. Another shooter reportedly entered the city’s Linwood Mosque at about the same time. They opened fire. By the time the shootings were finished, at least 49 people were dead, and dozens more were wounded. It was by far the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history, a larger death toll by population in this small country than the 9/11 attacks were for the United States.

Like the young climate strikers just a few miles away, the 28-year-old man who allegedly carried out the Al Noor shooting engineered his act for, in the words of the New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, “maximum virality.” The shooter livestreamed 16 minutes of his attack on Facebook Live, and shortly before he entered the mosque, uploaded a long manifesto heavy with references to white genocide conspiracy theory and hate speech against migrants and Muslims, larded with winks at online far right-wing culture and internet memes. He called for people to support his attack online and to create more memes — to give his act of mass murder fresh life on the internet. His natural habitat.

The tragedy of today — beyond the lives destroyed in the shootings — is that we likely won’t remember March 15, 2019 as the day of the Global Climate Strike for Future.

In the hours and days to come, fresh attention will fall on what companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are doing — and what they’re failing to do — to prevent their services from becoming platforms for hate and death. Though the companies were quick to take down the video and the gunman’s ramblings, users were even quicker to download and disseminate them. Copies are available online in the internet’s darkest reaches, and will almost certainly remain so. The alleged shooter was evidently a man who understood — perhaps better than the people who run these companies do — how the internet works, especially the fungal subcultures where those he was trying to reach dwell. Their natural habitat.

On Friday, the Climate Strike moved west with the sun from a grieving Christchurch, to the cities of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The young people who are taking part in it are far, far more representative of their generation, of the internet itself, than those who perpetrated an act of hate that took the lives of dozens of innocent people at worship. The students have come together to force the world to act on climate change, which is the true global crisis of our time — not the fevered, hateful dream of a global race war that apparently inspired the shooters. The student climate strikers are many; the killers of Christchurch and their repugnant online supporters are few. That was true before March 15 and it will remain true after.

But the tragedy of today — beyond the lives destroyed in the shootings — is that we likely won’t remember March 15, 2019 as the day of the Global Climate Strike. There is an asymmetry at work in terrorism, in the internet, in human psychology. The climate strike, like so many recent acts of protest, would never have been possible at this scale without the tools of the internet. It would have been difficult to organize, even harder to disseminate into the world. But it is hard, hard work to create positive and lasting social change, to move 7.5 billion people just one degree in the direction they need to go. It is hard work to build.

Destruction, though — destruction is easy. The weapons we have built enable one person to kill scores in a matter of a few minutes. The social media tools we have built enable those killings — and the hateful message of the killers — to go global, instantaneously. And our own brain wiring compels us to look. Most of us will react in revulsion; an abhorrent few will cheer. But the message will be out there.

Christchurch shows what it means to truly weaponize the internet.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called Friday’s terrorist attack “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.” And it is, though not merely due to the numbers of killed and wounded. We’ve used the term before, but Christchurch shows what it means to truly weaponize the internet.

It will get worse. The weapons, for one — as much damage as a few murderers armed with rifles can do, there are things coming in the fields of biotechnology and autonomous weapons that could turn mass killers into global ones. The reach of social media only seems poised to grow; even the recent moves by Facebook to shift away from a public news feed towards private messaging would likely have been ineffective in the case of Christchurch. The asymmetry will deepen, and with it, the consequences. Destroying will get easier, while building will remain as hard as ever.

As I write this in New York, students are taking part in the Climate Strike, doing their small part to build a movement that will need to span oceans and decades. In Christchurch, trauma surgeons are working desperately to save the wounded. The kind of guns used in mass shootings like Christchurch can fire many rounds per second. When those rounds find human bodies, they can shred arteries and pulverize internal organs. The victims who survive the initial shootings — if doctors can keep them alive — will face months of recovery, lives forever changed by the split second of impact. Destroying is easy. Healing is hard.

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Author of END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.

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