What we talk about when we talk about the New Zealand mosque shooting

Journalists are tasked with covering the news, but how should media cover a murder suspect who craves media attention? Harvard professor Joan Donovan discusses the pitfalls journalists fall into.

What we talk about when we talk about the New Zealand mosque shooting
Residents wait around the scene as they worry about their relatives after gunmen attacked two mosques and fired during Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019. [Photo: Diederik van Heyningen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

This morning, a shooter stormed two mosques in New Zealand and killed 49 people, live-streaming the entire event to Facebook. Before doing this, he made his intentions known on online forums and even left a digital document espousing a white supremacist ideology (among other things). The aftermath has left the world shaken, and unsure of how to go forward.


A big question highlighting this tragedy is how best to discuss and write about it. The alleged shooter was begging for virality every step of the way. As journalists it’s our job to cover the news, but by discussing his actions, are we not falling prey to his trap?

I called up Dr. Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, to get some perspective. She researches media manipulation, disinformation, and adversarial media movements–specifically those that target journalists–and has written numerous papers and articles about the subject. She also ran the Media Manipulation initiative at the research organization Data & Society. (One important piece of research being shared online today, written by Dr. Whitney Phelps, came from the Media Manipulation project and focuses specifically on how hate groups have hijacked media coverage over the last few years.)

Donovan and I spoke about how best to approach the New Zealand tragedy as a journalist, as well as the roles online platforms play in today’s media ecosystem. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fast Company: You posted a series of tweets earlier today about how journalists should best write about this tragedy. One of the points you make is that we shouldn’t discuss, in great depth, the contents of the shooter’s online profile beyond merely saying that he espoused a hate-filled ideology. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Joan Donovan: The main issue with how [people like the shooter] get attention is that, with social media in particular, they no longer have to mail their manifesto to a news organization and hope the news organization looks at it. We know people are going to be looking at it if they want to. But it’s not the job of the news media to annotate this and treat it as if it’s some serious document that holds a kernel of truth. Because it doesn’t–it’s full of misdirection, it’s full of doublespeak, and the points that are repeated and do land are specifically related to this white nationalist conspiracy theory about white genocide.

FC: How best can journalists approach documents like the so-called manifesto, when they are intentionally created to garner engagement and misinform?


JD: I think avoiding esoteric details and trying to explain certain bits in there is important for journalists to avoid because there are a few Easter eggs that are purposefully about carrying his story further into new audiences. I don’t know if you’re going to write about the Candace Owens reference—or his call to “Subscribe to Pewdiepie.” [Those are two references the shooter made in the document.] These are memes. They’re meant to compel coverage by bridging the murder’s message to new audiences.

[Note: the audio broke up during the above question so I filled in the gaps via email.]

FC: There are some reporters who are well-versed in this white supremacist online culture, but there are others today writing about it who likely don’t know the nuances–or, perhaps, the traps they could fall into. When thinking about this specific event, how should media approach the shooter’s online presence and his place in this white supremacist online culture?

JD: You have to see this as trans-media. It’s a manifesto packaged with a press release packaged with a live set of evidence. It’s not just the manifesto. This person was their own PR, and as a result, they’re able to craft a holistic story about who they are and what they did.

If you look at the social media trail, it’s very new. That’s suspect to me. This person doesn’t want you to know anything about them that they haven’t crafted for the media. And, as a result, journalists shouldn’t give a hot take on this package of propaganda. And it’s literally just white nationalist propaganda.

There’s no insight into who this person is. There is no insight into what they were like before this. There are no social networks to draw on. We don’t actually know who this person is from these missives.


FC: Is there anything journalists or readers can look back at to help us better contextualize these tragic events?

JD: Historically, this is not new. I studied the history of how white supremacist movements lost a lot of power, which is related to the way in which media started covering them as violent extremists rather than as white folk who just lost their minds.

Journalists are an amplification pool of movements, any movement. And it’s up to journalists now to pick up the threads and tell the stories from those that are most impacted and most harmed by words and deeds like this. Muslim advocates have been in the U.S., at the forefront, trying to get companies to take down Islamophobic content. And we’ve seen time and time again that people who are Muslim online are attacked for that.

Ultimately, I do think there’s precedent for journalists learning how to cover white supremacist violence differently than the way that they cover other kinds of violence and other tragedies. The thing that is most important for the public to hear right now is the voices of Muslims who have been in similar situations or are fighting against condemnation for being who they are.

FC: What role do the online platforms that helped the shooter’s message go viral play with this?

JD: There needs to be much more time, money, and resources put into content moderation on these broadcasting platforms. They’ve [historically] feigned as if they’re not media companies and pretended as if the tools they’ve given certain people don’t matter—as if they don’t have any responsibility in this space. But we’ve had rules about broadcast for many years, because people do crazy things when they think they have an audience.


And [the shooter] knew he could capture an audience by posting his manifesto and his link on a certain website that he knew both trolls and journalists alike look at. He knew how to go viral with this.

It’s no longer the case that social media companies are unaware or can pretend these are outliers. People are using live-streaming technology poorly, and as a result there has to be a set of steps or an agreement or a set of protocols put in place where, if someone is broadcasting, they have social, legal, and moral responsibilities that are enforceable in some way.

FC: And how do we go about thinking about this from the perspective of an ethical media consumer?

JD: Ultimately, we have the capacity to decide if we’re going to link or not link to something. What Whitney Phillips and I have shown in our research—not just advocated for, but we have reams and reams of research—is that if someone isn’t handed [certain] information, they might never search for it. So let’s not make it easy to find this stuff. And let’s not present it in a way that might be misleading or overblown or presents some kind of philosophical or moral valence to the story—which there isn’t.

It’s very easy to see what is happening here [with this event]. You have these very standard white nationalist tropes about population decline and you have someone seeking attention. That’s what has caused this tragedy.

FC: Any final thoughts before we hang up?


JD: I think that one of the things that we need to address—and we need to in light of what’s happening with these platforms—is that there is a long fight ahead related to how much content moderation is going to be able to help us curb the growth of this white supremacist movement. We know that it’s global, we know that it’s a networked nationalism that is pushing these ideas, and we know more or less the platforms that these groups are spending most of their time on. We have to work together globally to figure out a way to curb this.


About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about many things.