Social responsibility: Facebook in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque terror attack

So much of life in the 21st century plays out on phone screens. Information is shared and feelings are expressed through the channels of social media. And as New Zealanders rushed to change their Facebook profile pictures in solidarity with Christchurch, the shooting victims and the wider Muslim community, not everyone got it right.

A number of Instagram influencers faced a backlash in the wake of the tragedy for appearing to attempt to profit off the back of the tragedy.

Social influence

Wellington-based blogger Lucy Revill, who runs The Residents, posted on Saturday saying she would donate 50 percent of the payment for any new sponsored posts or blogs booked in March or April to the Victim Support Give A Little page. Revill’s post said the donation would exclude GST and her management’s cut of 15 percent. In the same post, she included email addresses to send advertising opportunities and said:

“If you work for a PR company in New Zealand, please pass this on to any of your clients that you think would be interested.”

Revill also replied to a tweet from Give A Little asking the platform to share her intentions on their feed.

However genuine, Revill’s pledge was not received well by fellow Instagram and Twitter users who questioned her intention to secure new advertising by promising to donate half the fee to support the attack victims.

While comments on the Instagram post were turned off, people vented on Twitter that Revill’s post was “tone deaf”, “tacky” and “insensitive”.

Revill later deleted the post, and said on an Instagram story that her intentions were good.  

“I approached it wrong. I shouldn’t have limited this to new ads. And, I just shouldn’t have got into the details. I genuinely didn’t think through the implications. I’m truly sorry.”

She also admitted that she didn’t handle the response well and that she didn’t want to steer attention away from the real issues in the country right now. Revill finished by saying she will commit to “giving a healthy proportion of current and new ads” to the cause.

Prominent Instagram influencer Simone Anderson was also slammed on social media after some considered her posts to be in poor taste. Anderson was criticised for publishing her sadness about the terrorist attack alongside an‘outfit selfie’ image on which she tagged the brand that gifted her the clothes, Postie.

Anderson later removed the post after receiving negative feedback from Instagram users. She was also criticised for sharing her shock and horror about the attack in a series of Instagram stories which were made in a nightclub.

Postie told Stuff that the outfit post was not paid and that the retailer supported the decision for it to be removed.  

What is right?

StopPress approached social agencies to get expert opinions on how social media should be used in times of tragedy. The general consensus was, the aftermath of the Christchurch was not a time for brands or influencers to make money.

Influencer marketing agency The Social Club does not represent influencers as agents, but founder and chief executive Georgia McGillivray says now is the time for companies who do to look to offer guidelines on best practice moving forward.

“I would like to think they [the criticised influencers]were coming from a place of wanting to help, which was misconstrued and ill-timed, but there is no ‘how-to’ guide on how to react in these situations,” McGillivray says.

McGillivray acknowledges that many influencers have used their positions and reach by sharing supportive and informative content, such as linking to fundraising events, sharing information about vigils and raising awareness about the victims.

The Social Club placed an immediate blackout period for all clients and influencers following the attack and plan to do so for any upcoming announcements from the government and funerals for the victims.

We would advise brands to consider taking this approach too if it feels right for them and ensure that they are not running anything that could be insensitive in any way,” she says.

“If the brand wants to share supportive content during this period, they absolutely should, so long as is authentic and shows real empathy.”

McGillivray says Wellington-based artist Ruby Jones is an example of the positive side of social media. Jones used her platform in the immediate wake of the shootings to share a message of unity and regret that migrants and refugees were not safe in a place where they absolutely should have been. Her image has been liked more than 160,000 times and shared countless more, travelling around the world as a symbol of compassion.

Zavy chief executive David Bowes says it was completely inappropriate for influencers to appear to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ by posting too quickly after Friday’s attacks.

“Even if you’re doing good stuff, now is not the right time to be profiting for that. I think everyone cares but the right thing is to not use the tragedy as a vehicle to talk about or promote a brand.”

With the vast majority of New Zealanders using social media to communicate, it is understandable that the instinct is to post online when a major event is unfolding, Bowe says.

“Many brands are posting that their thoughts and hearts are with Christchurch and its understandable but there is still a risk of looking like you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m a big believer in doing real good without needing to shout about it.”

For brands posting on Friday afternoon and evening while news of the attack was still unfolding, Bowes says it was only appropriate if the messages were a public service announcement: such as retailers closing or telcos offering free calls.

“I think Spark is a good example of a brand just trying to inform people. It’s just text and it’s just giving facts.”

Fuse managing director Gina McKinnon says New Zealand has no precedent to tell us what to do after such a horrific event.

“We need to remember that we are New Zealanders and modesty is a big part of our Kiwi culture. We have massive hearts and we love to help people but we don’t like to boast too much about our achievements or wealth.

“Brands and influencers could understand and align to this thinking more.”

Her advice to brands and influencers is to be authentic and consider whether they have a right to speak. She also said if a brand has an authentic link to a tragedy, it should make a tailored statement. McKinnon gives the example of Nike, who tweeted after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings: “We run with heavy hearts after the Boston tragedy, but we won’t stop running.”

Tech company responsibility

While some reactions on social media were less than sensitive in the aftermath of the attacks, influencers using social media as their source of income are in a precarious position. On the one hand, these platforms are their source of income, but on the other these are the very companies that have failed to ban extremist behaviour, and, in Facebook’s case, even live streamed the Christchurch attack.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in her House Statement on 19 March that social media platforms need to take responsibility for the content they give people access to.

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

She said the role of international companies such as Facebook and Google does not take away from the responsibility New Zealand must show as a nation to confront racism, violence and extremism.

Christchurch’s tragedy is far from the first time tech companies have been exposed for both providing platforms for extremist views and further harming victims of attacks.

On 14 December, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and fatally shot 20 children aged between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members. The families of the victims suffered unthinkable grief and a global outpouring of shock and sympathy ensued. However, almost immediately after the massacre, attacks on the victims’ families began online.

Conspiracy and anti-government groups started using Facebook to spread claims the massacre was a hoax. Not only were the child victims named “crisis actors” but parents and families were asked directly how much they were paid to “pretend to grieve” and some received death threats. Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah was killed in the massacre, devoted countless hours attempting to clear Noah’s name – individually reporting posts about the conspiracy theories to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google.

Pozner faced years of threats and was forced to move multiple times to different gated communities after his address was posted on online conspiracy groups. By July 2018, Pozner was moved to pen an open letter published in The Guardian pleading with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to crack down on hate speech and protect victims of mass shootings and other tragedies within Facebook policy.

Mark Zuckerberg

Pozner’s letter was responding to Zuckerberg’s interview with American journalist Kara Swisher where he said he didn’t believe Facebook should remove conspiracy theories – including Sandy Hook and Holocaust denials – from the platform, rather push them down the site where fewer people could see them. In an email to Swisher after the interview was released on her podcast Recode, Zuckerberg defended his position saying:

“Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services. If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed.”

The Social Club’s McGillivray says it is completely unacceptable that Facebook failed to remove the live stream of the attack until after it had finished. In 2017, Zuckerberg promised Facebook would improve its filtering and handling of violent videos after a murder was filmed and posted on Facebook in Cleveland, United States. The graphic video of the killing of Robert Godwin remained online for two hours before it was removed by Facebook.

“It is disappointing that this promise wasn’t met,” McGillivray says. “Given the resources they have available, there is no reason for it not to be the top priority.”

Not only does Facebook provide a platform for extremist ideas to be discussed, but it also allows heinous acts of violence and terror to be broadcast live with seemingly no moderation. The Christchurch attack was streamed live for 17 minutes on Facebook and it wasn’t until a further 12 minutes had passed that the website finally pulled the coverage. By that time it had been viewed by 4000 people.

Seven Sharp hosts Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells questioned the legitimate need for platforms that live stream content without any lag or monitoring – as we’ve come to expect from live television broadcasts.

“I just can’t comprehend the fact that the gunman was able to live stream his attack for 17 minutes on Facebook Live… Why don’t we just disable Facebook Live? Is it that vital, do we need it? They don’t seem to be able to control it,” Barry said on the 21 March show.

While Wells pointed out that using social media was an optional choice people make, Barry said that that did not undermine the need to monitor content on the website.

“You do expect to be safe there [on Facebook]. I don’t expect for videos to pop up, equally I don’t expect people to be able to live stream violent attacks like that,” she said.

Facebook’s vice president Chris Sonderby said 1.5 million copies of the video were removed from the site, 1.2 million of which were blocked by Facebook before they could be uploaded. In the days after the massacre, Sonderby said Facebook was working directly with the New Zealand Police to support the investigation. However, Zuckerberg has not made any public comments since the attack.

Facebook did activate its crisis response safety check feature on Friday evening, to allow Christchurch Facebook users to ‘mark themselves as safe’. The feature was initially launched in 2011 for natural disasters but has been utlised for a number of terrorist attacks since the 2015 Paris attacks. However, Facebook has remained quiet to its users since.

On the morning of Friday 22 March, Facebook and sister site Instagram finally acknowledged the shootings to the rest of the country, by launching an automatic pop-up with the text-friendly nationwide support number, 1737.

Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees have written an open letter to Google, Facebook and Twitter calling for an urgent solution to the problem of videos being upload and shared on the social media giants’ platforms.

Zavy’s Bowes says more needs to be done to prevent platforms from sharing extremist views, but he does acknowledge that they are also a place where good causes are formed.

“There are so many other causes that social media promotes that do so much good. Social media has provided a fantastic medium to talk and I don’t think that bubble will burst. But there are evil causes too and that has to be addressed.”

Fuse’s McKinnon says longer-term community impact management strategies should be developed within brands to encompass different groups around New Zealand.

“Social media means that the community impacts of terrorist attacks are more widespread and long-lasting. If we look internationally there has been very little change to the way the channels operate to date, however, increased global pressure should and could challenge the channels to address some of the safety issues with parts of their platforms.”

  • The National Teleheath Service free call-or-text helpline is available 24/7 and will put users in touch with a trained counsellor. Call or text 1737 or visit the website for written advice for dealing with mental distress and grief in the wake of the Christchurch attacks. 

About Author

Caitlin Salter is a freelance writer who contributes to various publications at ICG Media.

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