Bryce Edwards: Christchurch Calling: the clampdown on social media

Bryce Edwards: Christchurch Calling: the clampdown on social media

The world is changing fast, with digital technological innovation that is both liberating and disturbing. The threats and opportunities this presents requires a massive debate, and intervention, to ensure such changes are as healthy as possible for humanity. The online dimension of the Christchurch terrorist attacks is now provoking a sea change in attitudes towards social media.

Around the world we are now seeing attempts to rein in the tech giants with government regulations. There are blunt questions being asked about whether the likes of Facebook are “monetising hate”, and whether the dream of social media enhancing democracy and social connectedness is over.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Christchurch Call to Action campaign is currently at the most visible end of this new momentum, and commentators have declared her trip to Paris a success. For example, this afternoon Henry Cooke has concluded: Jacinda Ardern’s big day in Paris ends with her getting what she wanted.

Likewise, Gordon Campbell is impressed with how the final Paris manifesto has come together, apparently managing to satisfy all sides, including Facebook – see: On the Christchurch Call.

But the campaign isn’t over yet. According to Kelsey Munro, a research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, Ardern’s bid is still a difficult one – see: Christchurch Call: Jacinda Ardern’s Paris pitch a sign of tech giants’ power.

Munro points out that attempts to regulate social media so far, have been fraught and dangerous: “Many nations around the world have concluded that the public sphere must reassert a regulatory role; the problem is how to do it within reasonable limits. No one wants anything resembling the Chinese model. Australia’s ‘knee-jerk’ reaction has been widely criticised by the tech industry and lawyers as rushed and ill-defined.”

Clearly Ardern has been keen to keep away from some of the issues around free speech that are brought up by government regulation, as I explained in my previous column – see: Ardern’s “Christchurch Call” might not be so simple.

So is her campaign going to work? There are all sorts of risks with this sort of attempt at regulation. And this is best dealt with in Henry Cooke’s article, The risks Jacinda Ardern faces with her ‘Christchurch Call’ in Paris. He outlines three broad threats: 1) Over-reach, 2) Under-reach, 3) Being used by Macron to launder his image.

In terms of those first two dangers, the Christchurch Call might end up being too strong or too weak. The third point is the idea that in collaborating so closely with the French President and other world leaders, Ardern is naively being exploited for their own electoral opportunism. Cooke suggests that Ardern might need to “make her disagreement with these other leaders clear”.

This is also the view of Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper: “What is French President Emmanuel Macron playing at? The answer’s pretty obvious, he’s trying to boost his flagging popularity at home while at the same time trying to establish himself as a world leader on cleaning up the internet” – see: Jacinda Ardern being used by Emmanuel Macron to boost his image.

Soper suggests that Macron has been rather disingenuous in his role: “If you needed any convincing that she’s being used, get a load of what happened as she was packing her designer bags for the French capital. Macron releases a 33-page report he’d commissioned… Why he couldn’t delay the release until this week’s summit is an insult to those attending. And what’s more, the investigation was only halfway through but Macron decided to make a song and dance about how well France is doing.”

The bigger problem is that Macron has a terrible record in terms of civil liberties, and is clearly no friend of free speech, which could taint the ongoing campaign to regulate social media. This is all very well explained by leftwing journalist Branko Marcetic who puts forward “a brief review of what Macron’s done while in power” – see: Jacinda Ardern must not let Emmanuel Macron co-opt the Christchurch Call.

Marcetic then asks whether New Zealanders should be comfortable with such an alliance: “This is the man Ardern is teaming up with to figure out a way to regulate online spaces. Concerns over this shouldn’t be limited to the New Zealand right – with Macron at the helm, there are legitimate worries the outcome could threaten free speech, including for that of the liberals and left that are backing such measures right now.”

He concludes: “Ardern should be careful that Macron and any other embattled leaders in the G7 don’t use this meeting as an opportunity to push measures that harm not just journalism, but all of our civil liberties. But more importantly, the New Zealand public needs to hold her to account and make sure she doesn’t.”

And some are worried that the clampdown will inevitably intrude on the traditional media. Barry Soper criticises Ardern for “trying to reign in the mainstream media’s coverage of events to ensure it’s not gratuitous, and that for all of us should be worry. It’s not for the politicians to dictate how events should be covered” – see: The media here is generally self regulatory.

It’s clear that the task of social media regulation isn’t a simple one. And one of the best outlines of the pitfalls and best practices that Ardern and co should keep in mind can found in Dan Jerker B. Svantesson’s article, It’s vital we clamp down on online terrorism. But is Ardern’s ‘Christchurch Call’ the answer?

He cautions against the “risk of hasty, excessive and uncoordinated responses” to social media problems and suggests that we are currently seeing a rush of politicians who all want to gain political capital from coming up with fast answers. He says “as part of this we must avoid hasty ‘solutions’ that will only mask the issues in the long term, and potentially cause other problems such as excessive blocking of internet content.”

Svantesson’s own list of requirements for new regulations are the following: “Effective legal regulation of the internet must be clear, proportional (balanced for all involved), accountable (able to be monitored and checked) and offer procedural guarantees (open to appeals).”

Similarly, Jordan Carter and Konstantinos Komaitis, of Internet NZ and the Internet Society, have put forward their own suggestions of what needs to underpin any new rules and laws – see: How to regulate the internet without shackling its creativity.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has also jumped into the debate this week with the launch of her own Foundation think tank report, titled “Anti-social Media”. This calls for a new body to be set up to regulate social media in this country in the same way that the New Zealand Media Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority does with traditional media. For an in-depth discussion of the report, see Thomas Coughlan’s How to regulate social media.

Clark has explained the thinking behind this, and how it’s partly based on her own personal experience: “What I’m concerned about is that the rising level of rhetoric on social media from people who think they can get away with just about anything… And let’s face it, they can. I have regularly reported very hateful content, and very often you just get these reports dismissed. So that’s why you now need what this report recommends, which is the statutory duty to self-regulate, and then you need the regulator overseeing that” – see 1News’ Changing hate speech laws would ‘not necessarily’ have prevented Christchurch attacks – Helen Clark.

For more on this, as well as other debates about regulation of social media in New Zealand, and what sort of agreement was expected from the Paris meetings, see Derek Cheng’s Christchurch Call summit: New rules must leave nowhere to hide. In terms of the Paris agreement, he notes that “whether it will have any teeth will be a key issue, given it will be a voluntary framework.”

A new survey out shows that there’s a strong demand amongst New Zealanders for this problem to be sorted out: “More than half of New Zealanders want livestreaming stopped until platforms work out a way to immediately remove violent or other harmful content, a survey indicates. The online survey of 1134 adults carried out in the second half of April, found 54 per cent of those questioned wanted a halt to livestreaming in the meantime. In contrast, 29 per cent thought platforms should be given time to sort out a solution” – see: Most Kiwis want livestreaming halted until violent content can be curbed: survey.

Much of the debate about the problems of online extremism and regulation comes back to The Matrix movie’s concept of being “red-pilled”, which is explained in today’s Christchurch Press editorial: “To be red-pilled is to have the shackles of delusion removed and to see things as they really are” – see: Cleaning up the dark corners of the internet. But if this sounds like a positive development, then for a bigger explanation of the problem, see Henry Cooke’s Christchurch Call could lead to work on ‘red-pilling’ of online radicalisation.

Despite the difficulties involved, there’s no doubt that the tide has turned, and there is now a significant public appetite for some sort of action to be taken that might deal with the tech giants. After all, their reach affects everything in society – including democracy and politics.

This is a point well made in a report released this week, “Digital Threats to Democracy”, which suggests that the way New Zealanders are interacting with information online “can lead to the rapid spread of incorrect information and hinder the discussion and debate of issues of public policy” – see Brittany Keogh’s Social media influences New Zealanders’ opinions on politics and hurts democracy, study says.

Finally, there’s plenty of other disturbing evidence of the brave new world we are moving into. For one of the best recent accounts of this, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s book review, Big Google is watching you. Looking at an important new book by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School, called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power”, Mclauchlan explains why he feels so uncomfortable at the supermarket.