Last week, the small town of Christchurch, New Zealand, became the scene of an act of terror when a gunman entered two mosques and opened fire killing at least 50 people and wounding many others. When the gunmen finally surrendered, it was determined that the motivation behind his actions was his anti-Muslim beliefs. The gunmen who New Zealand has made a conscious effort to remain nameless belonged to a Neo-Nazi group believing in white supremacy. But while the horrendous actions of this man are awful enough on their own, equaling disturbing is the fact that he chose to live stream the event over Facebook in real time as it was occurring.

According to reports, it took almost 30 minutes and over 4000 views before the video had been reported enough to the social media platform so it could be deleted. The video, which was about 17 minutes in length, was not even reported until about 12 minutes until the shooting had concluded1. While we can all scratch our heads as to why someone would so such a horrible act, one has to ask when does social media have a role in the proliferation of these events.

Florida statutes section 777.011 (2018) governs the concept of Principal. The statutes reads,

Whoever commits any criminal offense against the state, whether felony or misdemeanor, or aids, abets, counsels, hires, or otherwise procures such offense to be committed, and such offense is committed or is attempted to be committed, is a principal in the first degree and may be charged, convicted, and punished as such, whether he or she is or is not actually or constructively present at the commission of such offense. See Fla. Stat. Sect. 777.011 (2018).

While Florida’s law narrowly tailors the actions that qualify one as a principal, the question remains whether social media could be consider a principal under the statute. Indeed, would some commit these acts of terror but for the platform social media provides them to spread their message of hatred? And if social media could be put on the hook either criminally or civilly would it result in these forms of media doing a better job of ensuring that these acts not reach the millions of potential viewers? Creating a policy of holding social media accountable for the actions of others could open a Pandora’s box of other media outlets being on the hook. But it could be another tool to prevent these acts of terror occurring in the future.

-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy