Reflecting on the New Zealand Mosque Attacks

On March 15, a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday services, killing 50 people. This devastating attack was designed to spread fear globally. Horrifyingly, the perpetrator live streamed part of the shooting.

Based on what we know now, it appears that the perpetrator was motivated by white nationalist ideology, meaning these acts of violence share a common thread with many similar attacks in recent years, including those in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Oregon; and Olathe, Kansas, in the United States, as well as in Toulouse, France; Oslo, Norway; and Munich, Germany. This is not an exhaustive list. The world is witnessing a rise in white nationalist and extreme right wing organizing. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a significant increase in the number of hate groups operating in the United States over the last decade.

The following activities are designed to help you and your students reflect on the attack in Christchurch. They can be used individually or together.

  1. Introduce the New Zealand Mosque Attacks

    Begin by providing your students with a summary of the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. The overview of this teaching idea provides context you can share with students, or you can use this source from the New York Times for a summary of the latest news. Starting with an overview of the facts can help dispel misinformation and ensure that students enter a discussion with background knowledge. We do not recommend that either you or your students watch the video of the attacks or explicitly discuss the content of the video.

    The volume of news in the wake of a terrorist attack can feel overwhelming, and so it is important to keep a focus on the people and communities impacted by mass violence. The photo collection Mourning in New Zealand from The Atlantic gives a window into how the community in Christchurch has responded to the attacks. The New Zealand Herald also has a memorial page that shares photos and stories of the people who lost their lives in the two mosques. Share one or both of these sites with your students. Then, give them time to reflect silently. You may also give students an opportunity to respond in their journals.

  2. The Internet and Radicalization

    White nationalist violence existed before the internet, but new technology has changed the ways in which people are drawn to extreme and violent ideologies. The suspected perpetrator of this attack appears to have been active in online forums promoting white nationalist ideas, such as certain pages on YouTube, and he designed the attacks to go viral and feed these communities of hate. For this reason, it is important for students to reflect on the connections between extreme content online and acts of violence.

    YouTube has been accused of using algorithms for recommending videos that draw viewers into increasingly extreme content. Have students read the first section of the article from The Atlantic YouTube Extremism and the Long Tail:

    Zeynep Tufekci, the insightful scholar and observer of sociology in the internet era, argued over the weekend that YouTube is unwittingly radicalizing some of its viewers through the videos that it automatically recommends that they watch next.

    She was watching Donald Trump rallies while conducting research, sitting through clip after clip, when eventually she noticed “autoplay” videos “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.” Then she watched a bunch of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders videos. Soon, “I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast,” she wrote, “including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11.”

    The pattern held across other topics:

    Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons. It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.

    It promotes, recommends, and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.

    She posits that, in Google’s effort to keep people on its video platform as long as possible, “its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with—or to incendiary content in general,” and adds, “It is also possible that YouTube’s recommender algorithm has a bias toward inflammatory content.” She believes we are witnessing “the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look ‘behind the curtain,’ to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.”1

    Ask students to reflect on how YouTube uses algorithms to suggest videos to viewers:

    • Have you ever experienced the effect described in this article? Do you think learning about how sites like YouTube recommend content will change how you respond to information online?
    • According to this article, how might the way that platforms such as YouTube recommend content to users fuel hateful extremism and violence?
    • Do you think YouTube should change the algorithms that suggest related content? How could the algorithms be changed and what challenges could these changes pose?
    • What can be done to help individuals be more critical and responsible consumers of information online?
  3. The Power of Naming

    The media has long had to make decisions about how to cover the news ethically, and in some cases, journalists have decided that the most ethical route may be to not report on all aspects of a story. The attacks in New Zealand have highlighted the fact that with today’s social media, everyone must consider the ethical questions that were once reserved for journalists.

    Show your students the video clip “When I speak, he shall be nameless” of a statement that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, made to Parliament (play until minute 1:15). Prime Minister Ardern says that she will not name the perpetrator of the attack, and instead will focus on those who lost their lives.

    After you play the video clip, read the following excerpt from a New Zealand Herald article

    Journalists frequently face criticism for providing terrorists with the "oxygen of publicity" by reporting on their motives or demands. But Friday's right-wing terrorist attack in Christchurch, in which at least 50 people were killed, marked a major shift: Terrorists no longer need journalists in the same way, if they can get a million other people to upload their content for them instead. . . .

    Friday's attack has turned a moral dilemma that once mostly affected journalists into a broader question for almost anyone with access to a social network. Where are the boundaries between posting about an attack to condemn it - and unintentionally helping to spread a perpetrator's message in the process?2

    Reflect with your students on the ethical dilemma raised in these two sources:

    • Do you agree with Prime Minister Ardern that the suspected perpetrator should not receive media attention but that the victims should? What do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
    • The internet makes it possible to easily access more information than ever before. How do you make decisions about what news you read or share and what you ignore?
  4. When Tragedy Leads to Activism

    This attack was designed to spread fear around the world, especially among Muslims, and students in your class or members of your community may be feeling vulnerable as a result. Ask students to reflect on the following questions:

    • Which members of your community do you think might be feeling vulnerable in the wake of these attacks?
    • Do you know of any efforts taking place in your community to either support people in Christchurch or support people in your community who feel threatened?

    Acts of violence create fear but can also bring people together. Share with students an article about vigils and campaigns that are being organized in your country, region, or local community. If you are not able to find any information about local campaigns, you can use the article Christchurch Massacres: Vigils Being Held around NZ that describes vigils organized across New Zealand or the NPR audio clip 'We Are Not Safe Unless We Are Together' (3:23) that describes interfaith vigils in the United States.

    Talk to your students about actions that they can take. You can use the following questions to guide your discussion:

    • How can we support people who are affected by this attack, either in our own community or in Christchurch?
    • How can you help to stop the spread of online hate?

Additional Resources

  • Use our reading Who We Are, Or Could Be, in Times of Crisis to further explore how people react to disasters and violence.
  • This attack appears to be motivated by white supremacy, which has deep roots in American history. You can use our lesson Violence and Backlash to further explore the historical context of white supremacist violence during Reconstruction in the United States.
  • Our webinar Teaching in a Time of Terrorism provides an in-depth exploration of teaching strategies you can use to respond to terror attacks such as this one in Christchurch.

Citations

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