In a video posted to YouTube earlier this week, the suspect in the mass shooting in the German city of Hanau on Wednesday night looked directly into the camera and warned “all Americans” in perfect, if slightly accented, English that “your country is under control of invisible secret societies,” adding that there are “deep underground military bases” in which “they abuse, torture, and kill little children.”
The video, together with a 24-page screed outlining far-right ideologies and more conspiracy theories, is part of the digital footprint left by the suspect, named by local media as 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen. Those materials are now being closely scrutinized by German investigators to establish the motive for the attack that left 11 dead, including the shooter and his mother.
Just hours before the shooting took place, the German Cabinet approved a controversial new law that would force social media companies like YouTube to proactively report hate crimes to the police, including far-right propaganda and posts indicating that someone is preparing a terrorist attack.
The bill still needs to be passed by the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in order become law, but even if the new rules were in place, it is unlikely that the suspect shooter’s YouTube video would have been flagged as problematic.
While the video is now seen as a possible warning of what was to come, when viewed in isolation, it could be viewed as simply one more video espousing conspiracy theories, which proliferate on YouTube today.
The new law, which is expected to pass, will force companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to monitor their platforms for far-right propaganda, graphic portrayals of violence, murder or rape threats, posts indicating that someone is preparing a terrorist attack or distributions of child sex abuse images. It also expands the definition of criminal hate speech to include threats of rape or property damage, as well as expressions of approval for serious crimes. It is a significant strengthening of Germany's already ultra-strict speech laws.
But it does not include conspiracy theories, meaning it is unlikely the suspect’s rant would have triggered Germany’s new hate speech rules — further highlighting the difficulty government and regulators face in trying to identify extremist content online before attacks take place.
The law also highlights the balancing act governments face in cracking down on extremist content without impacting freedom of speech. Critics say the law goes too far, will harm free speech, and risks making companies like Facebook the arbiter of what is and what isn’t allowed to be posted online.
Others argue that authoritarian regimes will look to mimic these laws and use Germany’s precedent to validate their restrictive rules.
While YouTube removed the original video and the suspect’s account on Thursday morning, numerous copies of the video have been re-uploaded to multiple YouTube channels and other platforms and were easily viewable online on Thursday morning.
Copies of the video and the shooter’s 24-page screed were also posted to Facebook and Instagram. Facebook told VICE News that it was actively removing these and any links to the content, and using content-matching technology to try and prevent them being re-uploaded.
Just like the live stream of the Christchurch mosque shooting video proliferated on Facebook after the original was deleted, there appears to be a concerted effort to repost the suspect’s video on YouTube.
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News about Thursday’s shooting.
Germany’s bid to further pressure online platforms to do more to stop the spread of extremist content came after a gunman tried to enter a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle during the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday last October.
He killed two people nearby and injured two others near a Kebab shop while streaming the entire attack on Twitch, an Amazon streaming service for video gamers.
Cover: A man places flowers near a hookah bar where several people were killed on Wednesday night in Hanau, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. A 43-year-old German man shot and killed several people at more than one location in a Frankfurt suburb overnight in attacks that appear to have been motivated by far-right beliefs, officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)