The enduring afterlife of a mass shooting’s livestream online

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By Ryan Mac, Kellen Browning and Sheera Frenkel, The New York Times Company

The one-minute, 30-second video offers an unnerving first-person view. A man strides across a parking lot. Then he raises a semi-automatic gun and fires at two people standing in a doorway. One falls, while the other tries crawling away before getting shot again.

The black-and-white clip was uploaded to Facebook on March 15, 2019. It was a partial recording of a livestream by a gunman while he murdered 51 people that day at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

For more than three years, the video has remained undisturbed on Facebook, cropped to a square and slowed down in parts. About three-quarters of the way through the video, text pops up urging the audience to “Share THIS.” The clip has amassed about 7,000 views and 22 comments, including some asking for it to be deleted.

Online writings apparently connected to the 18-year-old man accused of killing 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store Saturday said that he drew inspiration for a livestreamed attack from the Christchurch shooting. The clip on Facebook — one of dozens that are online, even after years of work to remove them — may have been part of the reason that the Christchurch gunman’s tactics were so easy to emulate.

In a search spanning 24 hours, The New York Times identified more than 50 clips and online links with the Christchurch gunman’s 2019 footage. They were on at least nine platforms and websites, including Reddit, Twitter, Telegram, 4chan and the video site Rumble, according to the Times’ review. Three of the videos had been uploaded to Facebook as far back as the day of the killings, according to the Tech Transparency Project, an industry watchdog group, while others were posted recently.

The clips and links were not difficult to find, even though Facebook, Twitter and other platforms pledged in 2019 to eradicate the footage, pushed partly by public outrage over the incident and by world governments. In the aftermath, tech companies and governments banded together, forming coalitions to crack down on terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Yet even as Facebook expunged 4.5 million pieces of content related to the Christchurch attack within six months of the killings, what the Times found this week shows that a mass killer’s video has an enduring — and potentially everlasting — afterlife on the internet.

“It is clear some progress has been made since Christchurch, but we also live in a kind of world where these videos will never be scrubbed completely from the internet,” said Brian Fishman, a former director of counterterrorism at Facebook who helped lead the effort to identify and remove the Christchurch videos from the site in 2019.

To outwit some of the large platforms, which generally rely on artificial intelligence to take down toxic content, people have added watermarks or filters to alter the clips of the Christchurch attack or changed playback speeds of the recording, the Times found. Others started posting the web addresses of the videos instead of directly uploading the clips, to avoid detection by algorithms that match shooting videos to previously known versions. Other people uploaded the Christchurch videos to less popular hosting platforms with fewer content moderation rules.

If the Christchurch footage is any guide, the Buffalo attack is also likely to persist on the internet. The shooting spree was broadcast for less than two minutes on Twitch, the livestreaming site owned by Amazon, before it was cut off by the company. But that was enough for someone to record the bloodshed and for links to that recording to spread widely.

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