Commentary: Questioning Censorship

When news of the Christchurch shootings first broke online, I couldn’t believe it. The New Zealand I lived in had always been peaceful, idyllic, and far away from the violent troubles that seemed to plague so many countries abroad. But as news sites revealed more details, this nightmare turned into undisputable reality. I was fortunate that all of my family or friends lived in Auckland, but to the residents of Christchurch, especially the Muslim community, the wounds of this day will remain fresh for a long time. As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern aptly described, this was “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”. Nor will it be forgotten on the global stage. This massacre has shown the entire world that fears of a rising white supremacist movement are no longer just some sort of conspiracy, but a dire situation in need of quick ratification.

But even more so, the active link to social media and internet culture have enormous ramifications for the online world, with many already calling the shooting the first social media based terrorist attack. In particular, the content distributed online by the shooter has raised concerns over how such content should be handled. For starters, I believe that taking down video recordings of the gunman’s stream is the correct decision.

The footage is disturbingly similar to the tales and rumours concerning the type of dark, horrifying content distributed on the deep web and dark webs, especially snuff videos (videos supposedly depicting actual murder or death). Though many perhaps only viewed the killer’s livestream to understand the situation better, one cannot discount the internet users who may have watched the video out of morbid curiosity, or, worse, to seek a perverted kind of entertainment. It is barbaric, morally reprehensible, and completely disrespectful of the victims to leave copies of the video up.

However, there is no such simple solution for the treatment of the shooter’s manifesto. Should we censor the manifesto? I believe there are legitimate points and strong cases to make for both sides of the debate, and I cannot declare either option as definitively inferior.

I don’t believe that freedom of speech is at the center of this matter. As a digital society, we have acknowledged that even in our freedom to express our views, there are still bounds we cannot cross. Online posts attacking others are condemned, campaigns are waged against cyberbullying, and hate speech is explicitly outlawed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The public accepts these limits to the freedom of speech because ultimately the duty of the government to protect their citizens overrules all else. If the government deems the document to be too dangerous, which it very well may be, then precedent has already clearly established that the government has the right to take it down. That does not mean there are no other reasons to leave the document available, however.

The manifesto is an important document to raise awareness about the dangers of the rising power of white supremacist sentiments in the western world. The terrorists we see in the news are always presented as insane, psychotic creatures, who, due to their crazed mind, commit horrendous crimes against innocents. But to dismiss the case of the Christchurch shooter as the act of a madman is a dangerous assumption. Of course, there has to be something wrong psychologically with the gunman that he could so calmly murder a crowd of his fellow human beings without emotion or remorse. Anyone who reads his manifesto, however, will find that they are far from the incoherent ramblings of a lunatic. As the lawyer recently fired by the shooter described, he is a sane man with extremist views.

Denial of any logic in his reasoning, no matter how wrong his conclusions and actions are, is extremely dangerous, as it significantly downplays the persuasiveness of xenophobic ideas, allowing them to further germinate amongst the populous. With studies by the Anti Defamation League reporting a 182 percent increase in the distribution of white supremacist propaganda and the rise of far-right terrorist attacks from 2017 to 2018, the issue of white supremacist notions isn’t just a potential hazard, but a very real crisis.

The strategy of condemning, censoring, and even arresting fascists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists does not solve the root of the sickness—it is a temporary relief to its symptoms. By not actively addressing the ideology of these extremist groups, their philosophy will only continue to spread, no matter what effort governments take to suppress them. We need to identify and attack the integral basis of their conviction, and to do so begins with analysing all the arguments they make. Thus, the manifest, in fact, provides a great opportunity for people to dissect their thoughts, and begin to treat the source of their beliefs. Only then can we truly contain the spread of this fanaticism.

Of course, we cannot ignore the dangers the document could pose. The manifesto, in its distribution across the internet, could both find new supporters for white supremacy and provide a core theory around which already existing sympathisers could rally around. The potential ill effects its continued availability online can cause definitely exists. Whether or not we should censor it, therefore, becomes an incredibly difficult decision.

I have yet to convince myself entirely on either side of the debate. No matter what decision is made, however, we do need a clear and definite stance to be taken. The current ambiguity, during which some sites that uploaded the manifesto have been taken down even though the document remains readily accessible with just a Google search, sends mixed signals addressing none of the concerns of either side. The manifesto still floats the internet to indoctrinate borderline neo-Nazis, while those who should be reading it to understand the scope of the problems do not from a lack of exposure. We need decisive action to be taken, and we need it now.

Maxwell Bao is a three-year Upper from Aukland, New Zealand Contact that author at