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A principled way to prevent online hate

A new project from a New Zealand think-tank has laid out ten principles for governments and companies to follow when tackling online hate - and it’s in the running for a prize at an international peace forum.

Following the Christchurch terror attack, how nations and social media platforms can prevent hateful and extremist content from spreading online has become one of the most pressing issues in the world.

The Christchurch Call, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron, brought together world leaders and social media bosses after the attack to develop a commitment to eliminate terrorist and extremist content online.

Now, the Helen Clark Foundation has developed a set of “Christchurch Principles” to sit alongside the Christchurch Call, with the Kiwi think-tank’s project the only Australiasian initiative among 120 projects presenting to the Paris Peace Forum this week.

Developed with the AUT’s Policy Observatory and Wellington policy collaborative The Workshop, the ten principles include the principle of equal participation; the duty to protect; the responsibility to respect; the responsibility to remedy; the principle of structural change; the duty of care; the principle of democratic means; the principle of decentralisation; the principle of inclusivity; and the principle of communicative action.

Helen Clark Foundation director Kathy Errington told Newsroom its selection for the Paris Peace Forum was both an honour and a surprise, coming on the heels of a May report in which the foundation called for an independent regulatory body to oversee social media companies.

“It got a bit of pick up internationally, it ended up on the BBC and somebody must have seen that and approached Helen suggesting we apply.

“We knocked something up not really expecting it would go far - we found out with 48 hours until the deadline, so we really just knocked together the proposal then got the go ahead.”

Errington said the foundation had to turn its New Zealand-specific work into something that would make sense for an international audience, while adding something new to the social media debate by adding democratic principles.

“These are predictable lines saying, ‘Well we need to regulate social media more’ then there’s a pushback saying its an undue limitation on freedom of speech and that’s sort of where it ends, and we’re saying because all our rights depend on democracy, that has to be the starting point of the conversation.”

“A lot of groups in civil society, their work focuses on concern about government overreach and it’s sort of saying, ‘No don’t do that, don’t do that’, and we’re saying, ‘Well, here’s some stuff maybe you can do, because you’ve got to do something’.”

The document used the United Nations’ principles for business and human rights as a framework for the Christchurch Principles, while extending their scope “so we’re not just protecting rights but actually protecting the institutions that make rights possible”.

While many social media companies had originally subscribed to “a quite utopian, kind of libertarian model” where they could operate as a platform without responsibility for the content they hosted, their growth meant that no longer made sense.

“Facebook has two billion monthly users, advertising revenues like $67 billion this year or projected: those numbers are just so huge and the impact of them is so so significant that they are legitimately powerful themselves and I don’t think they originally thought of themselves that way.”

However, most companies now understood and accepted that government regulation would be a part of changes to their operating environment, Errington said.

As a civil society organisation rather than a government, she hoped the Helen Clark Foundation would receive a less hostile response from the technology companies in Paris for the forum, while it had also tried to provide a more constructive framework for governments.

“A lot of groups in civil society, their work focuses on concern about government overreach and it’s sort of saying, ‘No don’t do that, don’t do that’, and we’re saying, ‘Well, here’s some stuff maybe you can do, because you’ve got to do something’.”

One of the more contentious principles would seem to be the principle of structural change, something Errington acknowledged that “we went around [on] a bit”.

While any antitrust action to break up companies could only be taken by the United States, there were other ways to change their structures, such as citizen forums and Facebook’s “appeals court” for users to challenge its decisions.

Ten projects at the forum will be selected to receive additional funding and resources to scale up their work - support which Errington said could be used to consult more broadly on the principles at home and abroad, while developing practical recommendations for companies and nations.

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