Heeding the call on social media terror

In the wake of the March 15 terror attack, Jacinda Ardern led work on a global pledge to end the spread of extremist content online. At the UN, she will update the world on the Christchurch Call - but how did it all come together, and where to next?

Less than a week after a lone gunman killed 51 people in New Zealand’s worst ever act of terrorism, Jacinda Ardern made it clear her Government’s response would extend beyond national borders.

While the language of division and hate was old, Ardern told Parliament, the methods for distributing that hate were new - a reference to a live-streamed video of the attacks which spread around the world, including via major social media companies.

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist, and that what is said of them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” she said.

“They are the publisher - not just the postman.”

Six months later, the Prime Minister heads to the United Nations to update the world on the Christchurch Call to Action, a voluntary pledge to eliminate online terrorist and extremist content spearheaded by New Zealand and signed by 17 countries and eight technology companies after a summit in Paris.

But the path to Paris and then New York has not been easy, as New Zealand officials explained in a background briefing for media ahead of Ardern’s UN visit.

France proved an ideal Christchurch Call partner for New Zealand, with Emmanuel Macron an advocate for greater regulation of the internet. Photo: Getty Images.

The idea of an international coalition came to the fore early, while a pre-scheduled visit to New Zealand by Microsoft president Brad Smith in late March provided an unexpected opportunity to take the temperature of a Big Tech player.

In a new book, Tools and Weapons, Smith details a brainstorming session with Ardern and other Cabinet ministers during his time in the country in which he offered praise for the Prime Minister’s “sense of moral authority”.

“She was quick to reply that the world’s outrage would eventually dissipate, and she wanted to use the moment not to score public relations points but to achieve something of more lasting importance.”

Conversations between Ardern and a range of world leaders followed, including with Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

While there were positive noises, New Zealand officials were aware early on that they needed at least one good partner, given the country’s distance from the rest of the world (both geographically and in people’s minds).

France was a good fit, given French President Emmanuel Macron’s earlier advocacy for greater regulation of the internet and his country’s role within the European Union, which has some of the most stringent legislation in the world for social media providers.

With officials from both countries working closely together, sleep was in short supply; the tiny overlap in daylight hours meant the small New Zealand team’s first thought upon waking was what had happened in France overnight.

A denim dialogue

Winning over the technology companies was initially difficult too, with some understandably wary of governments lining up to whack them with a big stick.

The different institutional cultures were also on display at points: at one meeting with tech representatives, the lead New Zealand official walked in a suit and tie only to find most wearing jeans (he quickly shed the tie as a nod to informality).

But officials worked hard to reassure the companies this wasn’t a “gotcha” exercise, and major progress came at the aforementioned denim dialogue in early May meeting hosted by Twitter in San Francisco where senior executives of Facebook, Amazon and Google, among others, were in attendance.

It later emerged that this was one of the exceedingly rare times where all the major companies had senior representatives in the same room, with Silicon Valley evidently not as fond of multilateral summits as world leaders.

Multiple iterations of the Christchurch Call document were worked through in the weeks before the May 15 meeting in Paris; the final version was put together in airport lounges in Wellington and Sydney en route to Europe.

Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube all signed onto the agreement in Paris, as did 17 countries - but as Ardern told Newsroom in an interview ahead of her UN trip, the real work is only just beginning.

Jacinda Ardern says the voluntary nature of the Christchurch Call does not mean pressure cannot be placed on tech companies. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“We’ve got now a commitment to long-term action - it doesn’t say, ‘Over the next three months we will commit to doing something about violent extremism’.

“It says we will make changes for the longer term, we will make structural changes that are going to make a difference...we will give this a much longer shelf life than just the aftermath [of Christchurch].”

A particular focus is encouraging social media competitors to better share the information that can prevent or mitigate the spread of offending content, along with the development of some “crisis response” infrastructure that can react to its dissemination online.

Ardern acknowledges that companies alone cannot solve the problem of online extremism, but points out that any government action is almost always after the most significant damage has been done.

“If we just legislate in New Zealand, all that will do is give us a penalty regime after the fact - so once something’s gone out, people have seen it en masse, it’s caused harm, and then our legislation kicks in.”

The Call has had its critics, with National leader Simon Bridges dismissing it as a “nebulous, feel-good thing”, but Ardern says all those involved have had practical outcomes at the front of their minds.

This week, Facebook announced a number of policy changes to better combat terrorists and hate groups on its platform, while the Prime Minister highlights the $13 trillion of financial pressure that has been placed on tech giants thanks to the work of the NZ Super Fund.

“In so many other parts of the market, if you’re dissatisfied with the actions of a product or service you go somewhere else...there aren't a lot of alternatives in the social media space."

Then there is consumer pressure, although as Ardern says that has its limits in the social media space (she makes mention of a New York Times piece from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, in which he called for the break-up of the company due to its unchecked power).

“In so many other parts of the market, if you’re dissatisfied with the actions of a product or service you go somewhere else.

“There aren’t a lot of alternatives in the social media space, so that puts a bit more pressure on governments and advertisers to make sure that we are enforcing what the public expects.”

Another shortcoming is the absence of the United States from the Call’s signatories: at the time of the Paris summit, the country issued a press release saying it supported the document’s overall goals but could not sign on.

Free speech concerns have played a role in that reticence, but the country’s politicians are not standing still.

The US Senate Commerce Committee this week grilled social media executives on what they were doing to address mass violence and extremism, while the Washington Post reported on plans for a bill which would create a “national commission” to study the weaponisation of social media and the effectiveness of tech giants’ efforts to combat it.

Whether Donald Trump is willing to sign the US up to a multilateral commitment remains to be seen, but it is likely there will be new additions to the Christchurch Call’s members at the UN event.

The tech giants have not yet transformed from “postmen” into publishers - but Ardern and others seem unlikely to accept any excuse that their cheque is in the mail.

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