Live streaming of violent crimes adds a dangerous dimension to a volatile scenario

HGS Dhaliwal
A police officer is pictured outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch on Sunday. (Reuters)

Ansi Alibava and her husband Abdul Nazer were migrants from India who had dreamt of an idyllic life in New Zealand, one of the most peaceful countries in the world. Central Christchurch symbolised everything an immigrant aspires to: The city readily welcomed and assimilated people from perse ethnicities.

On Friday, March 15, something changed forever and Ansi Alibava became one of the 50 victims of the shootings at the two mosques. While Abdul Nazer chooses to live on in Christchurch, his world and our world in the new age of "social media shootings" will never be same again. The world has experienced some horrific mass shootings in religious places as well as educational institutions. The wounds of mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, Stoneman Douglas and Army Public School, Peshawar are still raw. But, what has fundamentally changed post Christchurch is the addition of a horrific dimension - live streaming of crime.

Even though the world media was largely responsible, the vivid videos, imagery and graphics in form of "video gaming" of the incident across various social media platforms presents a gargantuan problem for law enforcement agencies across the world. The common citizen in me hopes and prays that this is a one-off incident. But, my instincts as a police officer portend that with the mass murderer in Christchurch, a diabolical dimension has been added to the tinderbox of social media, racism, bigotry and xenophobia - live streaming - which was in itself a highly flammable compound. The incident is likely to be a new catalyst to all the deranged minds who may have been trying to tread a destructive path, even though live streaming of a crime is not entirely new.

Would this incident have occurred if New Zealand had less liberal gun laws? Or if there were a lack of options to live stream the shooting? There are no definite answers to these questions. In the absence of access to guns, the depraved minds who suffer from extremely fragmented worldviews combined with murderous tendencies have used innocuous means of transportation like cars and trucks as weapons. From Westminster to Nice to West Bank, vehicles have been used to kill innocents. For a police officer, to ensure public safety across the spectrum, no set of tools and strategies is foolproof. Social media streaming has just added a new dimension to an already complex challenge. However, the prognosis need not be fatalistic.

First, these are times when most of us have social media tools in our hands. And we love to use them. This is part of the problem but also holds the beginnings of a solution. It is time to share content in a responsible manner. Second, post Christchurch, there is a new sense of urgency on part of social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to be more proactive in identifying and removing violent content. For potential mass murderers, personal recognition and highlighting of their worldview through media is a big draw. Due to this reason, in 2016, the American Psychological Association issued a press release and urged news media and social media enthusiasts to not publish names and pictures of the perpetrators.

On the face of it, New Zealand, a peaceful nation, may seem an odd choice to be the torch-bearer in leading the effort to control such acts of violence. But the cruel ironies of fate have thrust the mantle on it. The early signs of unanimity among its public representatives to pass stringent gun laws relating to automatic weapons, enacting legislation to proscribe circulation of violent content and a real-time coordination of its law enforcement agencies with social media giants, may be the most potent measures to check the damages from any potential live streaming of future incidents.

Perhaps this mantle has rightly fallen on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who with her grace, dignity and compassion has handled the crisis that struck her country. With the measures being contemplated by her government, New Zealand may show a way forward to the world in comprehensively tackling this new phenomenon.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 17, 2019, under the title ‘Spectre After Christchurch’. The writer, a 1997 batch IPS officer, is currently director, security, Airports Authority of India.