Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, and her ‘Christchurch Call’ campaign to curtail the spread of online extremism is proving to be a breath of fresh air in the current world of global politics, says Dr Kiran Hassan, a research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
Jacinda Ardern’s response to the 2019 Christchurch terror attack in which a white supremacist shot dead 51 Muslims and how she embraced the country’s multi-ethnic religious migrant communities won many hearts around the world. Domestically and internationally, she was recognised as an instructive, compassionate and humane leader.
Now she has stepped up again as a world leader with her campaign against hate and violent content on social media platforms. Her motivation to pursue this cause came from the Christchurch gunman’s decision to post a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto on social media immediately before his attack on the mosques and live streaming it on Facebook. The video went viral and the footage of the horror shared repeatedly. Facebook removed 1.5m copies of the video in the first 24 hours after the shootings.
Fighting against the negative online activity, Jacinda Ardern questioned the role of social media companies in perpetrating online hate crime. Refusing to accept that these platforms were benign, she stressed their responsibility as publishing platforms saying, ‘There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility. If this happens again what, then, does Facebook need to do? This isn’t a New Zealand issue, this is a global one.’
Her groundbreaking argument has earned the support of many governments. Her first partners in this this was the French government. Joining her endeavor, President Emmanuel Macron named it the ‘Christchurch Call’ urging governments to work closely with tech companies to make certain their sites do not become conduits for terrorism. World leaders including the British and Canadian prime ministers signed this document with Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter initially.
This is not the first time that questions of ethics have been raised around the role and accountability of social media platforms. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have already generated a huge debate in the US by arguing that big internet companies should be subject to more regulation especially over competition, suppressed content and privacy rights. Germany’s NetzDG law, which came into force on 1 January 2018, forces online platforms to set up procedures to review complaints about content they are hosting and remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours. Individuals face fines of up to €5m ($5.6m; £4.4m) and companies up to €50m if they fail to comply with these requirements.
The EU is also considering a clampdown, specifically on terror videos. Social media platforms would face fines if they did not delete extremist content within an hour. The European Court of Justice has recently upheld a request by an individual country in the bloc for Facebook to remove posts, photographs, and videos, and even restrict access to these materials to people all over the world. And the discussion as to whether Facebook and WhatsApp should give certain governments access to users’ encrypted messages, is under review and is getting much steam.
However, what makes Ardern’s cause to tackle the question of ethics within social media different from others is her realistic approach to this foreseeable challenge. She has asked the right questions and backed her demand with collaborative political will. She has demonstrated that the ‘Christchurch Call’ will succeed with a workable agreement between the key stakeholders, which in this case are most governments and the tech giants. A collaborative intergovernmental effort and sustained collective political pressure will likely demand adjustments from the main tech companies.
Jacinda Ardern’s fight for ethics in social media makes sense as a similar attack to the one in Christchurch took place on a synagogue in Halle, Germany on 9 October where two people died. This time again, the suspect live-streamed the terror attack and uploaded the video on Twitch, a gaming platform owned by Amazon. The attacker’s intention was to stoke antisemitism using social media as a platform. Even though Chancellor Merkel said there was ‘zero tolerance’ for such attacks in Germany, unlike Jacinda Ardern, she refrained from specifically targeting social media platforms.
Professing the need for multilateral collaboration to raise the question of ethics around religious minorities with tech giants especially in the context of social media is a critical global issue. Prime Minister Ardern will be credited as a pioneering political figure for raising this issue and bringing it into mainstream political thought and practice.
At the 74th UN general assembly on 17 September 2019, when many governments including those of Brazil and the US were preferring nationalism, Jacinda Ardern promoted interdependence and globalisation. While most of the male world leaders provided thumping lip service on climate change, armed conflicts, growing world hunger and unemployment, she stood tall above them all by offering inclusive concrete solutions to curtail social media malevolence.
Dr Kiran Hassan is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published and spoken about Pakistan’s political, foreign policy and media issues on various academic and policy platforms.
The original article is available on Global Risk Insights.