Livestreamed mass shooting shows more internet regulations needed: experts

David Shanks felt a familiar sense of distress as he learned a video was quickly spreading online depicting a mass shooting in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket.

Only three years ago, Shanks was faced with the question of how to stop the spread of a video of a vicious massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It's incredibly sad and I just feel so deeply for everyone affected by this,” Shanks said.

He recently ended his five-year term as New Zealand’s chief censor. He is in Winnipeg this week with other international experts to develop strategies aimed at fighting against unsafe digital spaces.

A sense of urgency has permeated the event, held by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, after the latest livestreamed shooting in the United States.

It has hit especially close to home for Shanks, who was in the content regulation role when a white supremacist entered two New Zealand mosques and livestreamed on Facebook as he fatally shot 50 people and injured many more.

The use of social media in that violent attack was unprecedented. The video spread widely and quickly.

“I immediately realized we were dealing with, not just a horrific terrorist attack, but also a dreadful media harm event,” Shanks said.

“(The video) was being multiplied and actually recommended to users on some platforms."

Unlike in other countries, Shanks had the power in New Zealand to ban the video as well as a threatening diatribe posted by the perpetrator. The ban made it illegal to view, possess or distribute the video or document in that country.

The quick action started a global conversation about internet regulation, especially when it comes to harmful videos.

Experts say those regulations lag even as more shooters, inspired by the Christchurch massacre, use the internet as a tool to spread violent ideology.

“What are we looking at again — another tragedy,” Shanks said.

U.S. law enforcement has said a white gunman went into a Buffalo supermarket Saturday in a majority Black neighbourhood and killed 10 people. Three others were wounded.

The shooting is being investigated as a federal hate crime and a case of racially motivated violent extremism.

Police say the shooter mounted a camera to his helmet to stream his assault live on Twitch, an online gaming site. The move was intended to echo the massacre in New Zealand by inspiring copycats and spreading his racist beliefs, police say.

The Buffalo video was flagged quickly by social media platforms, experts say, so it spread much slower than the Christchurch stream.

But it’s still easily searchable on multiple social media sites.

John Carr is secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety in the U.K. and an adviser on internet safety legislation. He said the Buffalo video emphasizes that the technology sector is still not regulating itself well enough.

It's time for governments to take the lead, he said.

"Unless governments do step up, they will just carry on in the same old ways,” he said. “Doing stuff on a voluntary basis hasn't worked.”

Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said she has seen the long-lasting and far-reaching effects of online videos.

The centre developed Project Arachnid to combat the growing proliferation of child sexual abuse. The online tool crawls websites in search of images of child sexual abuse and is used by organizations and police around the world.

McDonald said a lack of regulation can be harmful to children.

One in three of every internet users in the world is a child — one in five in Canada.

Videos can also compound trauma for victims, she said.

"It's the worst moment of your life and people around the world are watching it,” she said.

The European Union has agreed on landmark regulation for tech giants. Australia and New Zealand are also moving in the same direction.

Experts say more countries regulating is forcing technology companies to move proactively to keep their platforms free of violence and safe for users.

Canada has indicated it is moving in that direction. McDonald is on the federal government’s online safety advisory council that is helping to build a regulatory framework to address harmful content online.

There have been some changes from governments and technology platforms, but she said it’s too slow.

"The time is now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.