The attacks in Christchurch where the gunman has used social media and the internet not only to research his crazy ideas and build on his fantasies but then to share his ideas and actions in the most horrific way, is perhaps the inevitable zenith of the rise of the digital empires of the information age.
Government, and government agencies, seem apparently powerless, in fact gormless, in their failure to regulate and control how these platforms are used and to harness the power of data to protect society.
Facebook alone has had an unprecedented 12 months, lurching from one PR disaster to the next. That they are still being caught out is indicative of a culture within Facebook that is still not facing up to the realities of the awesome reach and influence that they have created. But this also reflects a failure by government internationally to recognise and address the wider problem.
Former New Zealand PM Helen Clark said after the events of Friday, "If this man or these men were active on social media with hate speech, one would frankly expect that to be picked up, not only by our own services but frankly also by social media platforms," she said.
"I think this will add to all the calls around the world for more effective regulations of social media platforms."
Clark's right. And here's the rub. I can do an internet search right now for something – let's say a suitcase. Within seconds, smart ad targeting software will start to serve me ads on sites I visit (including Facebook) that offer suitcases. In fact, for days or even weeks, I'm going to see a lot of suitcase ads of all shapes and sizes. Even after I've bought one. Ad targeting software can be both smart and dumb.
Google, YouTube, Facebook etc aggregate digital profiles of me, some knowing who I am by identity through logged in activity, others who I am through IP. All provide a 'profile' that indicates the sort of things I'm interested in, my age range, gender, hobbies, reading preferences, sporting affiliations, you name it. All eminently trackable in the data multiverse. All to allow digital advertising to target me within seconds of me searching information. Not days or weeks, seconds.
So as Helen Clark says, why can't the platforms pick up the obvious indicators? Algorithms can be written to determine the difference in search behaviour between interest and fanaticism (searching something like 'white supremacy' a few times v hundreds of connected extreme subjects) and surely then a knock on the door can be arranged? Sure, we don't want a police state and that's where government needs to strike a balance. Certainly, between the authorities and the platforms, the killer in Christchurch didn't show up despite on early evidence clearly being very active. The balance isn't right.
I wholeheartedly support Helen Clark's call for regulation – governments need to force these organisations to take this stuff seriously, as they clearly are not moving anywhere near as fast as necessary especially compared to their more self-interested efforts to exploit us all as advertising assets.
It's good news that Facebook chief operations officer Sheryl Sandberg has apparently reached out to Jacinda Ardern, and Facebook has also been so active to take down over a million shares of the awful live stream video – but it's also concerning that to date they have been too slow to work on ensuring their platform can't be hijacked for hate. They should have the systems in place to spot these people coming. The tech is available. It sells me suitcases.
We are all aware of the changing nature of power – data knows no borders, and these digital empires straddle the world both avoiding regulation and apparently tax. In the book The Sovereign Individual, written at the turn of the century, the authors prophesied a "new revolution of power which is liberating individuals at the expense of the twentieth century nation state". Unfortunately, even for someone as liberal as I am with an underlying distrust of the state, recent events and the rise of digital empires demonstrate that our governments need to take action now.
Ben Goodale is a New Zealand advertising executive with expertise in the use of data in marketing.