The Christchurch massacre and its message

In the early afternoon of Friday 15 March 2019, a heavily-armed man invaded a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, and began systematically murdering people, while live-streaming his actions on Facebook. He moved on to another mosque and killed others, before a brave man tackled him and he fled, possibly to carry out a third attack. Minutes later, he was stopped by police and arrested.

Fifty-one people had been killed, and another 50 were injured, many of them very seriously. For the Muslim community, and for Christchurch in general, the world would never be the same again.

In 2010 and 2011, we had suffered very damaging earthquakes, and 185 people were killed. That was a tragedy, but this latest horror seems worse in that it was man-made, not an act of nature. It is, of course, just one more evil demonstration of what lengths people will go to to show their hate of others.

In this case, religion and fear of an “invasion” by people of different appearance and beliefs was the motivating factor. However, hatred as displayed by the murderer here is not confined to matters of religion. To varying degrees, a great many people express their hatred every day for others who are “different” to them in origin, appearance, political belief, or any of a number of things. And the majority of them do it on so-called social media.

The perpetrator here certainly used it for his purposes, meeting on line with others of similar views, publishing an on-line “manifesto”, and of course providing a live feed of his atrocities which Facebook kindly propagated for him. The company did take down the original video when belatedly notified, but copies, many of them altered in various ways to avoid recognition by filters, were uploaded in their hundreds of thousands, and spread to YouTube and other platforms.

Who were the people who did this on a scale that Facebook and YouTube, with all their resources, were unable to contain? Clearly there is a whole army of haters out there, who took great delight in the actions of this person and wanted to help promote his evil to the world.

While religion is one of the major causes of on-line hate, and murder the worst manifestation of it, there are thousands every day who use the world wide web to denigrate, humiliate, and terrorise others against whom they have a real or imagined grudge. And this all starts at a very young age.

Ask any child of school age, and he or she can probably tell you numerous tales of on-line bullying. Instances of this have been serious enough in some instances to cause suicides, but all of them result in at least embarrassment, humiliation, or distress. Most start from no more than some difference of opinion, or slight dislike of someone’s appearance, but the ease of using social media and the possibility of anonymity make it easy for the bullies to escalate their attacks.

Adults, too, jump onto the net to hate on others at the slightest provocation. Say something in favour of gun control, and the fanatics will swamp you with their venom. Criticize dogs, and rabid dog owners will attempt to crucify you on line. And in politics, of course, hating the “other side” because their views don’t coincide with yours is commonplace. In fact, almost any viewpoint one has these days can be the object of people’s nastiness if it happens to disagree with what they believe – just see the comments on any news site, or even on a YouTube music video!.

The internet is a wonderful invention which makes our lives much easier, and adds to the total of human knowledge. But it has also increased enormously the power to spread hate, and human nature is such that millions have embraced that use for it. Why do so many no longer respect the right of others to have contrary views, whether they be about religion, politics, sexual orientation, gun control, the merits of dog ownership, the way they dress, the music they like, or a thousand other things?

It seems that the internet has a dehumanising effect on some people, and they care nothing for the pain that their hatred brings to others. They behave in a way that they wouldn’t in “real” life, but feel comfortable doing on line. But what can we do to reverse this?

Governments seem almost helpless when they attempt to control the power of the big social media companies. China, of course, is a different case, but in so-called western countries, it seems that “freedom” and “rights” have now far outstripped such old-fashioned concepts as responsibility and respect for others. So any attempts to rein in the monster corporations that provide a platform for hate are met by charges that it would be an infringement of human rights.

Sadly, it seems that even after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and despite the many years of education that most young people now undertake, we have not developed a universal level of maturity, common sense, and thought for others that balances up our “rights” to do whatever we please. We have certainly not, as a species, gained the ability to use the wonders of the internet in a sensible and responsible fashion.

So much on the internet, even if it is not actively bad, is trivia of the most mind-numbing kind – cat pictures and photos of what we had for lunch being just a couple of the more harmless examples. Should an alien civilisation gain access to our communications, it would probably think we were at a very low level of development indeed, and the hate messages would no doubt convince it that we were dangerous as well.

Perhaps one day the human race will grow up (not in my lifetime), but in the meantime, I hope more and more people individually will come to question their use of the internet, in particular social media, and try to make sure that they, their children, and others around them treat it solely as the useful tool it can be.

And if you can’t resist the trivia, at least avoid hating, and report any you find. That way, we may perhaps prevent a lot of unhappiness and hopefully avoid further events such as the one we had here.

Did the internet cause the massacre? No, but without the internet it is unlikely to have happened. Let’s make sure we use the internet at all times for good, not evil, even on a minor scale.

Jim Nicholls

Christchurch, New Zealand