technology

Too little, too slow, Super Fund tells social media giants

A group of international investors worth $13.5 trillion* will today tell Facebook, Google and Twitter they are not doing enough to stop objectionable content spreading across their platforms.

At 5am this morning, an open letter was emailed from New Zealand to the leaders of three of the biggest social media giants in the world - Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Twitter. It was copied to some of the world’s most influential business media. 

This letter is clear. A year after the Christchurch mosque attacker live-streamed around the world his images of the mass killings, this sort of terrible material is still being spread across social media platforms.

And it’s taking far too long for senior executives and board members at the three companies to tell their investors where the ultimate accountability lies for stopping it happening.

Mass shootings continue to be livestreamed and disseminated across these company’s platforms.

“We have made our voice known to these companies since the attack in Christchurch,” the open letter says. 

“While some positive changes have been made, more needs to be done at the executive and board level to build accountability and ensure these platforms cannot be used to spread objectionable material.

“Mass shootings continue to be livestreamed and disseminated across these company’s platforms. They remain open to abuse.”

(See below for the full letter and a list of the funds that have signed it.)

The message is coming from New Zealand, because NZ Super Fund CEO Matt Whineray and responsible investment strategist Katie Beith are spearheading the initiative

But it’s got the backing of some seriously grunty international fund managers - more than 100 of them, with total investments worth $13.5 trillion.

They include Northern Trust, one of the 10 biggest investors in Facebook.

Beith says there have been several meetings with the social media giants since the group was formed In August last year, but not with the really senior people they’d hoped to see. And there have been changes to the technology, but not enough to stop two other mass shootings - in Germany and Thailand - being disseminated via social media. 

The social media investor collaboration wants more investment in technology and more accountability. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

What would Beith like to see happen as a result of the open letter and the pressure investors are putting on the leaders of Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter?

“We want to see them continue to invest in technical solutions, we want more cross industry collaboration, we want them to commit funds to academic research in these areas and sharing information," she said.

We want them to take action to rebuild trust with investors, as that was damaged. And we want clear lines of governance and accountability within these companies, so we can see where accountability lies.”

Investor action

It’s no longer rare to see fund managers taking an active role in promoting change and transparency in the companies they invest in. There are shareholder lobby groups pushing for more action on climate change, for example, or for mining companies to be more responsible about their tailings dams.

These aren’t quick-fix campaigns. When Newsroom asked Matt Whineray last year when he might expect the social media giants to respond to pressure from the post-Christchurch terror attack investor group, he said engagements take a while.

“These are big organisations, so if you want solutions to be enduring you’ve got to end up with the right decisions,” Whineray said. “Some of our engagements take years.”

Too slow

We decided this open letter was a way of keeping it top of mind with the companies that their platforms are still open to abuse.

But less than a year after the group was founded, it seems their patience is running out.

“We were coming up to the anniversary of the Christchurch shootings, and we got to the stage where we talked about what was happening and what to do next,” Beith says. “We decided this open letter was a way of keeping it top of mind with the companies that their platforms are still open to abuse.” 

She hopes as well as the social media company bosses getting the open letter direct, they will also be prompted by some of the most influential business papers in the world publishing it in full. 

The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have both said they are interested in running the letter, she says. 

“It’s our way of escalating engagement with the companies, remembering a year down the track how horrendous it was. Because it’s easy to move onto the next things, and there’s plenty more the companies can do.” 

Beith says it’s not just about pushing the social media giants to do the right thing from an ethical perspective. There’s also a financial risk for investors if consumers turn against Facebook, Google or Twitter because of their lack of action on objectionable material.

That could send share prices tumbling.

“We want to say these are big risks for your business and as investors we expect you to be morally and financially responsible.”

When should this happen?

Has the investor group set any time limit for the social media companies to respond? Not yet, but they are thinking about it, Beith says.

“It gets tricky around timing for the technology, though we say we expect you to sort this as soon as possible. With governance though, that is a more tangible ask. 

“We could think about a timeline. It’s about having those conversations.

And if they still don’t do enough?

“If not, there are plenty of levers you have as a shareholder. We’ve got plenty of other things we can try over the next twelve months, and it’s not just writing letters and having conversations.

What about voting with their feet and just selling out of Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter?

Our preference is to engage and use our power. We have relationships with these companies, we’ve made our voice known since July; we’ve had discussions with them.

“They know it’s important to us.”

OPEN LETTER TO THE BOARD MEMBERS AND EXECUTIVES OF FACEBOOK, ALPHABET AND TWITTER

More than one hundred investors representing approximately NZD13.5 trillion* of assets-under-management have joined a global collaboration to encourage Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter to strengthen controls to prevent the livestreaming and dissemination of objectionable content. The initiative will continue to accept new signatories until these companies take meaningful action.

20 March 2020

Dear Board members and executives of the social media companies:


Almost exactly one year ago, 51 people were killed by a gunman in two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand while they worshipped. It was an act that was livestreamed and disseminated across your respective platforms. Our hearts remain with the victims, their families and loved ones and all those affected by this horrific act.

This investor collaboration has made its voice known to you over the year since the atrocity in Christchurch. As owners of your companies, we welcome the changes you’ve made to your platforms and the industry collaboration that has occurred via the Christchurch Call. Mass shootings have, however, continued to be disseminated across your platforms, including via livestream (for example, the recent mass shootings in Thailand and Germany). They remain open to abuse.

It is time that your respective organisations acknowledge the influence you have within society and embrace the responsibility that comes with this.

Our request includes:

- clear lines of governance and accountability for senior executives and Board members to ensure your platforms cannot be used to promote objectionable content like the livestreaming and dissemination of the Christchurch shootings; and

- sufficient resources being dedicated to combating the livestreaming and spread of objectionable material across your platforms.

We encourage and expect modernisation of legislation to protect the public from exposure to similar content in the future. Policy must be built on robust evidence and for this we need you to be open about how your platforms are built and operated.

Perpetrators of crime cannot be permitted to weaponise their actions via your platforms.

To date, we have been dissatisfied with the response from your senior executives and Boards to us. The failure to respond to these actions creates a significant business risk, beyond the harm caused to the global community. You have a duty to address that. We remain open to continued engagement. Our expectation is that you will take responsibility for and fully address this issue.

Yours faithfully,


Signed:

New Zealand Super Fund, Accident Compensation Corporation, Government Superannuation Fund, National Provident Fund, Kiwi Wealth, ANZ New Zealand Investments, ASB, BNZ, Booster, Fisher Funds, Foundation North, Generate Investment Management, Harbour Asset Management, Investment Services Group (Devon Funds, JMI Wealth, Select Wealth and Clarity Funds), IWIinvestor, JBWere NZ, MAS, Mercer (NZ and Global), Milford Asset Management, Mint Asset Management, MyFiduciary Limited, NZ Funds, Pathfinder / CareSaver KiwiSaver, PIE Funds/JUNO KiwiSaver Scheme, Rātā Foundation, Salt Funds Management, Trust Investments Management Limited, Wellington Free Ambulance Service, Westpac / BT Funds Management, ACSI, Adrian Dominican Sisters, AQR Capital Management, Australian Ethical Aviva Investors, Axa Investment Managers, BMO Global Asset Management, Bon Secours Mercy Health, Cadmos Peace Investment Fund, Christian Brothers Investment Services, Inc. (CBIS), Church of England Pensions Board, Church Commissioners for England, Congregation of St. Joseph, Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Louise, De Pury Pictet Turrettini & Cie, Dignity Health, Domini Impact Investments, ECO Advisors, Ethical Partners Funds Management, EOS at Federated Hermes, HESTA, HSBC Global Asset Management, Legal & General Investment Management, LGPS Central, LG Super, Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF), Mercy Investment Services, Inc., Mirova, NEI Investments Neuberger Berman, Newton Investment Management, Nomura Asset Management, Northern Trust Asset Management, Öhman, OPTrust, Pantheon Ventures, River and Mercantile, Robeco, U Ethical, USS Investment Management, VFMC, VicSuper, West Midlands Pension Fund.

The full list of participants for this initiative can be found here.

*As at 31 December 2019

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