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When a gunman rolled up to a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur, he clearly wanted the world’s attention. “I believe the Holocaust never happened,” he said on a livestream of his rampage, which killed two people, to Amazon-owned Twitch.
The gunman was following in the footsteps of the Christchurch shooter, whose live streamed attack on several New Zealand mosques ended up all over Facebook in March. Yet unlike with that shooting, video of Wednesday’s incident didn’t go viral.
The footage remained on Twitch for 65 minutes before it was taken down, long enough for about 2,200 people to view it. While copies continued circulating on Telegram, 4chan, and other less regulated sites — potentially reaching tens of thousands more viewers — the shooter’s anti-Semitic propaganda didn’t explode on larger platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
That’s a big shift from six months ago, when Facebook couldn’t contain the spread of the Christchurch shooter’s video. By the time a user flagged the shooter’s video just 29 minutes after it went live, supporters had downloaded it and created at least 800 edited versions. Within 24 hours, 300,000 or more copies of the content had made it back on Facebook.
The Germany synagogue shooting Wednesday was the first big test of Big Tech’s new alliance to defend against viral violence: The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. Founded in 2017 as a partnership between Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube, the group spun off as a standalone counterterrorism group last month.
The group, which includes Amazon, helps companies and governments coordinate in real time to respond to attacks. But its main tool to fight terrorist content is a shared database of 200,000 “hashes,” or digital fingerprints, that platforms can use to identify existing propaganda.
After Twitch removed the German synagogue gunman’s video Wednesday, it shared a hash of the content with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’s database. Working with partners like U.K.-based nonprfit, Tech Against Terrorism, the counterrorism group then shared the hash with its other partners. The goal is to allow companies to put that hash into their security tools to track down existing content on their platforms or, ideally, prevent its upload in the first place.
Adam Hadley, director of Tech Against Terrorism, said that the partnership largely succeeded in containing the content as of Wednesday night. It did, however, remain live at the time on smaller players including BitChute and Kiwi Farms.
“The Big Tech companies have a close relationship with one another,” said Hadley, whose group largely focuses on small companies. “What is more difficult is coordinating activity across hundreds of smaller platforms.”
“What is more difficult is coordinating activity across hundreds of smaller platforms.”
Those relationships will be key as white supremacists and other violent actors try to bake virality into their attacks. The Germany synagogue shooter’s second goal, for example, was to “increase the moral [sic] of other suppressed Whites by spreading the combat footage,” as he wrote in an apparent manifesto. The gunman who shot up an El Paso Walmart in August posted a similar letter to 8chan, where it found a large audience that helped elevate his white supremacist message into mainstream media.
Since the Christchurch attack, the New Zealand government has enlisted dozens of international counterparts to put pressure on Big Tech to improve security through a “Christchurch Call” to action. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism has been central to that push.
“In a sense, we’re trying to create a civil defense-style mechanism,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference after she appeared at the United Nations General Assembly in September. “In the same way we respond to natural emergencies like fires and floods, we need to be prepared and ready to respond to a crisis like the one we experienced.”
The White House didn’t endorse Ardern’s plan out of concerns for free speech, but other governments have stepped up efforts to prevent viral terror. In September, officials from Europol and tech companies including Facebook and Google met in The Hague to wargame future attacks.
Although large platforms like Facebook and Google present the largest targets for terrorists, they also face the brunt of public criticism and have the most resources for security. The unanswered question is how — and to what extent — smaller players join in.
“There are folks that don't want to play ball,” Brian Fishman, head of Facebook’s counterterrorism and dangerous organizations team, told VICE News in an interview in August. “There's still plenty of startups where they're just trying to keep the lights on, and nobody realizes that they need to be dealing with this.”
Cover image: 10 October 2019, Saxony-Anhalt, Halle: Police markings stick around a bullet in the window of a kebab shop. During attacks in the middle of Halle an der Saale in Saxony-Anhalt yesterday two people were shot dead in front of a synagogue and in a kebab snack bar. (Jan Woitas/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)