Guest Post: Jacinda Ardern Backing Social Media Ethics

Guest Post: Jacinda Ardern Backing Social Media Ethics

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proves to be a breath of fresh air in the current world of global politics. Domestically, she came across as a leader when she dealt with the Christchurch terror attack, where 51 Muslims were killed in two mosques by a white supremacist in March 2019. 

Her response to this local upheaval where she embraced and called New Zealand’s multi-ethnic religious migrant communities as her own won many hearts around the world. She was recognised as a compassionate, humane and instructive budding world leader. 

Starting a political career at the age of 17 and becoming New Zealand’s youngest woman prime minister, she stepped up as a world leader with her campaign against hate and violent content on social media platforms. 

Her motivation to pursue this cause was because the Christchurch gunman had posted a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto on social media immediately before beginning his attack on the mosque and live streaming it on Facebook. The video went viral and the footage of the horror was repeatedly shared. In the first 24 hours after the Christchurch attack, people continued uploading the video despite Facebook’s attempts at removing it roughly 1.5 million times

Fighting against the negative online activity, Prime Minister Ardern questioned the role of social media companies in perpetrating online hate crime. Refusing to accept that these platforms were benign, she stressed on their responsibility as publishing platforms. At the time her words were, “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 ground-breaking argument held mass global appeal eventually earning her the support of many governments. The first nation to partner her for this mission was the French government. President Emmanuel Macron joined her endeavour and named it the “Christchurch Call” pledging governments to work closely with tech companies to make certain their sites do not become conduits for terrorism. Key leaders from around the globe, including the British and Canadian Prime Ministers, signed this document with Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter initially.

This is not the first time when the questions of ethics were raised around the role and accountability of social media platforms. A huge debate had already been generated in the United States by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who argue that big Internet companies should be subjected to more regulation especially over the competition, suppressed content and privacy rights. Germany’s NetzDG law came into effect at the beginning of 2018, applying to companies where they are forced to set up procedures to review complaints about content they are hosting and remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours. Individuals may be fined up to €5m ($5.6m; £4.4m) and companies up to €50m for failing 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 also recently asked Facebook to remove posts, photographs, and videos, and even restrict access to these materials to people all over the world on a request placed by an individual country in the bloc. Currently, the discussion around Facebook and WhatsApp to share users’ encrypted messages with certain governments is under review and is getting much steam.

However, what makes Prime Minister Ardern’s cause to tackle the question of ethics within social media different from others is her approach to this foreseeable challenge with realism.  She has asked the right questions and backed her demand with collaborative political will. She has demonstrated that the Christchurch call will likely succeed with a workable agreement between the key stakeholders, which in this case are most governments and the big tech giants. A collaborative intergovernmental effort and sustained collective political pressure will likely demand adjustments from the main tech companies.

She will be remembered for not putting too much attention on technology or profit but for raising awareness around developing and implementing an online culture of ethics of use. She will be regarded as the first world leader for seriously attempting to highlight the human consequences of unfiltered online hate crime which has massive negative social implications.

Prime Minister Ardern’s fight for ethics and social media makes more sense when a similar attack to Christchurch was witnessed at Halle, Germany on a synagogue that killed two people on the 9th of October 2019. This time again, the suspect live-streamed the terror attack and uploaded the video on Twitch, a gaming platform which is owned by Amazon. The intention of the attacker was to stoke anti –Semitism using social media as a platform. Even though Chancellor Merkel said there was “zero tolerance” for such attacks in Germany, she refrained from specifically targeting social media platforms to be used for targeting religious minorities like Prime Minister Jacinda did after the Christchurch massacre. 

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 Jacinda will be credited as a pioneering political figure for raising this issue and bringing it into mainstream political thought and practice.

At the recent 74th UN general assembly in 2019, when many governments including the Brazilian and the United States were preferring nationalism, Prime Minister Jacinda promoted interdependence and globalisation. While most male world leaders provided thumping lip service on climate change, armed conflicts, and world’s growing hunger and unemployment, she stood tall above all by offering inclusive concrete solutions of curtailing social media malevolence.

Dr Kiran Hassan is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.