In the wake of the Christchurch attack, the Australian government has announced its intention to create new criminal offences relating to the livestreaming of violence on social media platforms.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill will create two new crimes:
It will be a criminal offence for social media platforms not to remove abhorrent violent material expeditiously. This will be punishable by 3 years’ imprisonment or fines that can reach up to 10% of the platform’s annual turnover.
Platforms anywhere in the world must notify the Australian Federal Police if they become aware their service is streaming abhorrent violent conduct that is happening in Australia. A failure to do this will be punishable by fines of up to A$168,000 for an individual or A$840,000 for a corporation.
The government is reportedly seeking to pass the legislation in the current sitting week of Parliament. This could be the last of the current parliament before an election is called. Labor, or some group of crossbenchers, will need to vote with the government if the legislation is to pass. But the draft bill was only made available to the Labor Party last night.
This is not the first time that legislation relating to the intersection of technology and law enforcement has been raced through parliament to the consternation of parts of the technology industry, and other groups. Ongoing concerns around the Access and Assistance bill demonstrate the risks of such rushed legislation.
The government has defined “abhorrent violent material” as:
[…] material produced by a perpetrator, and which plays or livestreams the very worst types of offences. It will capture the playing or streaming of terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape and kidnapping on social media.
The major social media platforms already devote considerable resources to content moderation. They are often criticised for their moderation policies, and the inconsistent application of those policies. But content fitting the government’s definition is already clearly prohibited by Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.
Social media companies rely on a combination of technology, and thousands of people employed as content moderators to remove graphic content. Moderators (usually contractors, often on low wages) are routinely called on to remove a torrent of abhorrent material, including footage of murders and other violent crimes.
Technologies developed to assist with content moderation are less advanced than one might hope – particularly for videos. Facebook’s own moderation tools are mostly proprietary. But we can get an idea of the state of the commercial art from Microsoft’s Content Moderator API.
The Content Moderator API is an online service designed to be integrated by programmers into consumer-facing communication systems. Microsoft’s tools can automatically recognise “racy or adult content”. They can also identify images similar to ones in a list. This kind of technology is used by Facebook, in cooperation with the office of the eSafety Comissioner, to help track and block image-based abuse – commonly but erroneously described as “revenge porn”.
The Content Moderator API cannot automatically classify an image, let alone a video, as “abhorrent violent content”. Nor can it automatically identify videos similar to another video.
Technology that could match videos is under development. For example, Microsoft is currently trialling a matching system specifically for video-based child exploitation material.
As well as developing new technologies themselves, the tech giants are enthusiastic adopters of methods and ideas devised by academic researchers. But they are some distance from being able to automatically identify re-uploads of videos that violate their terms of service, particularly when uploaders modify the video to evade moderators. The ability to automatically flag these videos as they are uploaded or streamed is even more challenging.
Evaluating the government’s proposed legislative amendments is difficult given that details are scant. I’m a technologist, not a legal academic, but the scope and application of the legislation is currently unclear. Before any legislation is passed, a number of questions need to be addressed – too many to list here, but for instance:
Does the requirement to remove “abhorrent violent material” apply only to material created or uploaded by Australians? Does it only apply to events occurring within Australia? Or could foreign social media companies be liable for massive fines if videos created in a foreign country, and uploaded by a foreigner, were viewed within Australia?
Would attempts to render such material inaccessible from within Australia suffice (even though workarounds are easy)? Or would removal from access anywhere in the world be required? Would Australians be comfortable with a foreign law that required Australian websites to delete content displayed to Australians based on the decisions of a foreign government?
The proposed legislation does nothing to address the broader issues surrounding promotion of the violent white supremacist ideology that apparently motivated the Christchurch attacker. While that does not necessarily mean it’s a bad idea, it would seem very far from a full governmental response to the monstrous crime an Australian citizen allegedly committed.
It may well be that the scope and definitional issues are dealt with appropriately in the text of the legislation. But considering the government seems set on passing the bill in the next few days, it’s unlikely lawmakers will have the time to carefully consider the complexities involved.
While the desire to prevent further circulation of perpetrator-generated footage of terrorist attacks is noble, taking effective action is not straightforward. Yet again, the federal government’s inclination seems to be to legislate first and discuss later.
As an immigrant to New Zealand, I am saddened and outraged by the events in Christchurch. The apparent innocence of New Zealand has been stripped away by acts of cowardice and evil.
Police remain on high alert and authorities are still responding to events following the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch that took the lives of 50 people and seriously injured many more. Three people have been arrested, and one, an Australian living in New Zealand sporadically, has appeared in court on murder charges.
My research focuses on how members of a majority perceive a growing immigrant population, and what we can all do to keep fear and hatred in check.
The alleged gunman (whom the Conversation has chosen not to name) is a self-identified white supremacist. Before the attacks he posted an 87-page manifesto online. In his manifesto and social media accounts, he refers to the rise of Islam, and to towns and cities being shamed and ruined by migrants.
He posts photos of ammunition, retweets alt-right references and praises other white supremacists. The manifesto includes references to “white genocide,” which is likely a reference to a conspiracy theory embraced by the alt-right and white supremacists that “non-white” migration dilutes white nations.
The gunman’s motivations seem to echo those of other white supremacists who have committed similar atrocities: the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, the Charlottesville attacker, the Charleston church shooter, and attackers in Sweden, Quebec and Norway.
In each of these cases, the attackers voiced hatred toward minorities or immigrants and expressed a belief that their way of life, the “white” way, was being destroyed by these groups who were infiltrating their societies.
Over the past decade, my team has conducted research in India, France, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, analysing how members of the dominant group perceive minorities and immigrant groups. The research has shown that many dominant group members, often white Christians in the countries studied, express fear of immigrants in their nations. In particular, respondents have voiced fear of immigrants changing their cultural, political, and economic way of life.
Normally such fears are benign and lead only to misunderstanding or lack of interaction. But as we have seen too often, they can lead to prejudice, hatred and much worse.
Recently, such fears have become more visceral with the proliferation of social media platforms. With the use of social media, individuals can easily find others who share their feelings, and therefore not feel alone. The ability to find a community that shares one’s feelings provides a sense of security and validates ones fears and feelings of hate.
In our increasingly connected world, it’s essential we take steps to combat these fears to reduce the chances of such atrocities happening in the future. First, how families talk about minorities and immigrants is critical. In work that we conducted in Finland, we found prejudicial opinions of Finns toward Russian immigrants are largely shaped during adolescence. It’s incumbent upon parents to be role models for their children and adolescents and to promote tolerance and mutual respect early.
Second, in an increasingly computer-mediated world, it is our shared responsibility to challenge racist and hateful cyber messages. If you see a YouTube clip that you deem abusive or offensive, report it.
Third, the more contact we have with each other and learn about one another, the less likely we are to fear one another. This may sound trite, but the more we know about other groups, the more likely we are to pass that information onto one another and improve overall social cohesion. In turn, we are better able to identify and challenge those bent on dividing society. It is our collective responsibility as diverse societies to recognise our diversity and to face the psychology of hate that would attack our home and us.
Two key questions to consider are:
How likely are you to fall victim to terrorism?
What increases or decreases that likelihood?
Our natural way of thinking about the first question should be similar to considering crime (murder or robbery, for instance), mortality (infant mortality at birth, or cancer), car accidents, or other threats. And the salient point is not so much the total number of murders in a large country, but rather the total number in relation to the size of the population.
Put simply, we should consider the number of affected people on a per-capita basis – that is, murder rates, or mortality rates.
For example, from a policy perspective, it makes sense that ten murders in a populous country like China (which has 1,371,000,000 citizens) would be much less significant than ten murders in a tiny country like Liechtenstein, with its 37,000 citizens.
However, when it comes to terrorism, almost all the knowledge that drives policy decisions comes from studies analysing the total number of terror casualties in a given country and year.
India is a good example. It ranks fourth on the list of terror-prone countries since 1970, with 408 deaths from terrorism in an average year.
But the average Indian need not be particularly worried about terrorism. The country is home to 1.27 billion people, and terrorism kills only one in 2,500,000 people – or 0.0000004% of the population – per year, once we translate total terror deaths to terror deaths per capita. The likelihood of dying from crime or in a road accident is far higher.
India ranks only 82nd in the world when we compare terrorism victims per capita.
So, although India has a relatively high number of terrorist attacks, an individual’s likelihood of dying in such an attack is minimal – because India has such a large population.
Once we switch from focusing on total terror deaths (or attacks) per country to terror deaths per capita, relevant conclusions about what drives terrorism change dramatically. And thus potential policy reactions also change when focusing on terror deaths per capita.
A somewhat baffling conclusion from a long list of research articles states that terrorism is more likely to emerge in democracies, rather than non-democracies. This idea is difficult to reconcile with our intuition of democracy giving people political (and usually religious) freedom – so why should we see terrorism in such free countries?
It turns out that once we analyse terror per capita, democratic nations are less likely to witness terrorism. Again, take India, a large democracy that, at first glance, suffers a lot from terrorism. But, in per-capita terms, terrorism becomes less important.
Another popular belief states that countries with a sizeable Muslim population – such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh or Nigeria – are experiencing more terrorism than non-Muslim countries. This is true when looking at the total numbers of deaths.
But that result is also overturned once we consider terror per capita. A larger share of Muslims in a given country relates to marginally less terrorism. Pakistan (202 million people), Indonesia (258 million), Bangladesh (156 million) and Nigeria (186 million) all feature exceptionally large populations.
This result is informative for the current policy debate. More caution is needed before classifying certain countries as more prone to terrorism based on their religion.
Another – admittedly simplistic – way of considering the link between Islam and terrorism comes from comparing the share of terror attacks conducted by Muslim groups with the share of the world population identifying as Muslim. If Muslims were more likely to be terrorists, we should expect the latter figure to be lower.
Approximately 23% of the world population identifies as Muslim. But, since September 11, Islamist groups have conducted about 20% of terrorist attacks worldwide. Thus, terrorist attacks are – historically and today – less likely to be conducted by a Muslim than by a non-Muslim group.
Our results suggest it may be time to rethink the way we approach terrorism.
The likelihood of dying at the hands of a terrorist is comparable to the odds of drowning in one’s own bathtub.
This does not mean we should be afraid of bathtubs, nor does it mean terrorism is not among the problems that need to be solved with a high priority.
Rather, in the fight against terrorism, seemingly easy conclusions may be drawn too quickly – and we should not forget other matters that affect people’s lives far more than terrorism does.
The US president’s impetuous reaction was to tweet that the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market proved that American courts should “give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Note the exemplary use of the exclamation mark. However, Trump did have the grace eight minutes later to offer a form of condolence to the British people – “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
The capitals presumably mean either that he was shouting or that he really means it. Not so the One Nation leader, who chose to use Twitter to desecrate the warning from the British authorities for people to “run, hide and tell” by declaring that it was time to “stop Islamic immigration before it is too late”.
Labor’s Penny Wong rightly declared Hanson’s eructation “irresponsible and crass”. One of Australia’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Greg Barton of Deakin University, went further, telling me that what the One Nation leader was saying was “downright dangerous” on at least two counts.
One, in this age of postmodern terrorism, Islamic State operates as the first metaphysical nation with no dependence on physical territory or traditional communication to wield its power. In that environment, the security authorities rely on tips from the communities from which impressionable operatives emerge.
Maligning those very communities, Barton says, tends to make its members turn inward, reducing their trust in the authorities and diminishing the likelihood that they will report the wayward behaviour of people they know. Witness the bizarre spectacle of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, praying loudly in the street.
Second, it encourages the very sense of alienation, the feeling that they are stigmatised outsiders, that leads people to lose their sense of belonging. That makes them more vulnerable to the brutal siren call of murderous extremists.
Hanson either does not know this or does not care, because it is likely that her anti-Muslim message, basically a reworking of her initial hostility to Aborigines and then to Asians, appeals to much of One Nation’s base. What more would you expect from a person who over two decades has used the public purse to turn politics into a highly successful small business?
There are legitimate questions, though, about this latest attack in the UK, the third in as many months. One is whether Britain has a peculiar problem when it comes to these apparently autonomous acts of ghastly violence. The other is whether the London Bridge/Borough Market attack had anything to do with the UK election, now only days away.
The answer to the latter is probably not. As Barton points out, if the perpetrators had wanted to influence voters, they or their sponsors would have made a statement to that effect in some form, either direct or allusive.
That is not to say that the violence of Saturday night won’t affect the result of Thursday’s poll. Conventional analysis has it that assaults on security tend to favour the incumbent, especially if they are from the centre right.
Theresa May’s Tories consistently poll as “better for” national security than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this has not been a conventional UK election campaign and there are also questions about whether a sense may take root within the electorate that the government is failing to protect the community, following two fatal acts of terrorism in just a fortnight – Manchester and now London. May was, after all, home secretary, responsible for domestic security, for six years before she became prime minister.
She has not had a good election. Gone are the days, less than two months ago, when it looked as if she could gain a majority of 100 in the House of Commons, knocking Corbyn for six. Her refusal to engage with Corbyn was seen as arrogant, and UK voters are sick of going to the polls (three times in less than two years). There was also her blunder on a “dementia” tax, essentially a proposal to make the elderly contribute to their health care if they have combined assets of more than £100,000.
Immediate public outcry forced a U-turn, but the damage had been done. As campaign managers would say, May had gone “off-message”. The election was no longer a plebiscite on her managing of Brexit, but an argument about health and welfare, traditional Labour turf.
It was a surprising mistake, especially given that as a political up-and-comer May warned the Conservatives back in 2002 that it had become the “nasty party”. Its base was “too narrow” and on occasion so were its sympathies, a sermon this child of the manse had clearly forgotten delivering.
On the question of security, the message from the voters is decidedly mixed. In the wake of the Manchester attack Corbyn boldly, but deliberately, stated:
Many … professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported … and terrorism here at home.
From the G7 summit, May went thermonuclear:
I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault.
Corbyn was “not up to the job”, she said. He also faced criticism from within his own ranks, but it seems May’s decision to play the security card was not as effective as she might have hoped, because the opinion polls continued to tighten in Labour’s favour.
None of this means May will lose when the votes come in on Thursday. Rather, it shows that national security is a more complex issue in the UK these days, after a decade and a half of unpopular wars and years punctuated by regular, fatal terrorist attacks.
It is not clear whether the story is the same in either the United States or Australia. It is possible this is one way the UK is grimly unique.
The Muslim shop employee hailed as a hero for saving customers during a terrorist attack on a Kosher supermarket last week has described how he hid people in a cold storage room as a gunman assaulted the store.
Lassana Bathily, 24, told the BBC that he was working in the basement of the Hyper Casher grocery store when he heard gunshots on Jan. 9. “The customers started running down the steps. They were screaming [that] there were terrorists in the shop,” he said.
Bathily ushered the customers into a cold storage room, then switched off the refrigerator and the lights. “I told the customers to stay calm. [I said:] If the terrorist comes down here he must not hear you.” Bathily said once everyone had quieted down, he decided to go outside to help the police. Initially, police thought he was one of the gunmen, but he convinced them he…
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