Christchurch attack: New Zealand tries new tactic to disrupt online extremism

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin
Photograph: Vincent Thian/AP

The New Zealand government will create a dedicated investigative team to find and prosecute terrorist and extremist content online, seven months after a gunman live-streamed the mass murder of 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said NZ$17m would be spent over four years to employ 17 new full-time staff, allowing the department of internal affairs to double its investigative, forensic, intelligence and prevention work in partnership with other countries.

“We will have a dedicated team focused on targeting and disrupting violent extremist content across our digital channels. This will work in a similar way to how we target child sexual exploitation material by working with online content hosts to find and remove harmful content,” Ardern said.

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The package is the main domestic component of Ardern’s Christchurch Call – a global voluntary pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent content online devised in the wake of the attack.

The country’s worst ever mass shooting was livestreamed on Facebook, and the video was shared on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook-owned apps Whatsapp and Instagram.

Ardern said the online world must be a force for good where users can “exchange ideas, share technology, and maintain civil liberties” but “we need to meet that challenge as a country and as a global community,”.

Minister of internal affairs Tracey Martin said the “ease and speed” with which the video of the 15 March massacre spread online showed the government needed better systems in place to protect New Zealanders online.

Some of the funding would also be directed to the office of the chief censor to enable his team to assess and make faster decisions about harmful content.

In the long-term, the government would also strengthen the current laws to ensure it responds more swiftly, and explore how online providers should be regulated.

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Last week Ardern said the Christchurch Call was already having an impact, citing the contained spread of the recent German shooting livestream video.

More than 50 companies and countries have signed the Christchurch Call, including Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The pledge does not contain any enforcement or regulatory measures, and it is up to each individual country and company to decide how it would honour its voluntary commitments.