New Zealand is a country often associated with postcard picturesque beauty, brimming with spectacular mountain ranges, mischievous parrots and locals with unfathomable accents. That temporarily changed this week after the abhorrent acts of a single coward, armed with a hoard of weapons and a brain infected with the virus of extreme right-wing ideology, perpetuated in part by online forum 8chan, a place where like-minded individuals come together and discuss which cross-sections of society should be slaughtered, for the betterment of our race.
A natural period of enquiry usually follows such a tragic event, in an effort to prevent similar occurrences, and given that it is exceptionally difficult to identify potential mass murderers, our attention turns to factors that we can control. Gun reform is already being discussed by the New Zealand cabinet, just four days after the attack occurred, testament to their progressive government and laudable prime minister Jacinda Ardern. The terrorist’s mental health is another consideration. In his rambling, racist manifesto he claims to be an ordinary white man, as though everyday, mentally-healthy people harbour urges of puncturing the organs of innocent people with bullets. As a native Australian, the shooter had access to discounted mental health programs via their Medicare system, providing him with a limited number of appointments with a mental health professional, though it’s unclear whether these were ever utilised, or how effective they would have been in steering him away from extreme ideology.
The third major consideration, and much murkier problem, is how to moderate hate-filled discussion boards on websites like 8chan. These are hotbeds of righteous discontent, loaded with reclusive figures whose pitiful anger can develop into violent, unbridled extremism, occasionally forming a character of such severity as the Christchurch shooter, so psychologically disturbed and miseducated that he considers his actions enough to prevent Muslims from migrating to predominantly white countries such as New Zealand.
The United States, UK, Australia, and many other countries fall under the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty, which includes the prohibition of certain types of hate speech, such as inciting violence against an ethnic group. The problem is one of enforcement — given that there’s no such thing as an internet police force (thank god), is it possible to systematically and efficiently censor lunatics like the Christchurch shooter, so that their violence-inciting ideology is eliminated before it reaches more gullible and mentally-unhealthy minds?
The web is enormous — over 1.5 billion sites and growing. For this reason, websites are expected to moderate their own content in an effort to keep things in accordance with international law, often through the use of self-written codes of conduct. This method is useless for websites like 8chan, which was created as a place for people to share whatever content they wanted, regardless of its illegality. It even had chat boards dedicated to child rape. Though Google does have the power to remove illegal content from its directories (it removed 8chan after child porn was discovered), the company is understandably reluctant to ban websites that host content that isn’t categorically illegal, such as right-wing ideology. It’s up to the creators of discussion-based websites to moderate their content, including having the financial resources needed to overcome the potentially gargantuan challenges that accompany moderation. Diligent physical and algorithmic moderation of content along with constant refining of rules is needed to reduce illegal and hateful content on large websites, a mammoth, ongoing task that Facebook is gloomily familiar with. For 8chan — a website created with the purpose of allowing the most vile opinions to be shared and discussed freely — moderation is unimportant. 8chan’s owner Jim Watkins claimed that he doesn’t have a problem with white supremacists talking on his site, despite it encouraging mass murder in far-flung, usually peaceful cities such as Christchurch.
With the failure of self-moderation, one might expect the responsibility of regulating hateful content to fall to a government appointment regulatory board in the country where the website is hosted, which reviews the content of questionable sites such as 8chan, with the power to take them offline if necessary. 8chan is infamous for hosting illegal content, making it a prime target for such a regulatory board. Surely a government cannot stand by while a public, highly popular website that is hosted in their country openly discusses child rape, or advocates the destruction of the Muslim faith? While this kind of moderation will be challenging beyond belief, and probably require much free assistance from the general public, the alternative is allowing destructive, hateful ideas to perpetuate among the most depressed and disillusioned minds in the human race.
Freedom of speech is essential for a democratic, fair society in which ideas can be discussed without fear of consequence. The ICCPR tells us that the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right. This means that platforms such as 8chan cannot have free reign to host disgusting, violence-promoting content. The ICCPR exists for this very reason.
The problem with freedom of speech is that it’s also freedom to be evil. It’s possible to protect freedom of speech and censor websites that repeatedly violate hate speech laws. The difficult part is working out how to do so. Figuring out how to regulate echo chambers of mentally-deranged hate such as 8chan is an absurdly challenging task, but also an incredibly important one, worthy of the extensive time and investment needed in order to remove the soapboxes of senseless, would-be terrorists.