The Christchurch Call initially seemed more like vague platitudes than a plan. Might the government’s diplomatic efforts actually result in something concrete emerging? Alex Braae assesses the latest developments.
The Christchurch Call was born out of tragedy. Footage of the March 15 attacks on worshippers at two Christchurch mosques was beamed around the world instantly through a live stream on Facebook. The events that were shown were horrific, along with the celebratory reaction from some of the scummier corners of the internet.
Two months after the attack, PM Jacinda Ardern, French president Emmanuel Macron and other government and tech company leaders adopted a pledge called the Christchurch Call to eliminate violent extremist content from their internet platforms. It was a grand statement of intent.
Aspects of it were concerning to civil libertarians, who feared massive overreach into a space that has traditionally valued more absolutist interpretations of free speech. That it coincided with French police ruthlessly suppressing Yellow Vest protests lent weight to that argument.
Paradoxically, the Christchurch Call also very quickly looked like it could devolve into a farce. An exercise in being seen to do something, without any muscle ever actually being applied in any meaningful way. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at both the Ardern and Macron administrations is that they’re all spectacle, no substance, and this looked to some like another example.
After all, big technology companies have shown themselves to be largely unaccountable to any government, in a wide range of ways. Especially Facebook, which has conducted unethical experiments on users and wields an immense amount of power over news organisations and public discourse. At times it appears to be able to dictate its own business arrangements, rather than being beholden to trivialities like tax law.
But four months on, progress on bringing something meaningful out of the Christchurch Call has continued. And, to be fair, Facebook itself has been a key participant in that. The online giant’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, put out a statement following a recent series of workshops involving New Zealand government officials, and Facebook employees in Singapore, informing the development of legislation.
“They asked hard, but important questions of us and we learned what was top of mind for them,” Sandberg said. “I share Prime Minister Ardern’s commitment to bringing governments, industry and civil society together to develop smart regulation to combat hate and violent extremism in society.” Google will also be involved in a ‘crisis-response’ test later this year, to develop tools to manage situations similar to the Christchurch attacks in real-time.
Both companies, along with others in tech, will also be part of a revamped Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, an organisation set up in 2017 to allow tech companies to share information on content like the live-streamed terrorist attack. The GIFCT will now be an independent organisation, though still funded by the tech companies, so that it may work more closely with external organisations.
In her speech on the matter in New York, Jacinda Ardern said “the Christchurch Call has required a new kind of multi-stakeholder diplomacy.” It isn’t really something that could have been taken through traditional diplomatic channels – between governments – in part because the US government has no interest in signing on to the call.
Is it all just lip service though? There are a few clues in the wording. One of them is the word ‘smart’, deployed by Facebook as the adjective for the type of legislation they want to see – in the context of these sorts of corporate communications, smart is often used as a counterpoint to other potential types of legislation, like ‘restrictive’ or ‘severe’.
But just to reiterate – Facebook really don’t have to be part of this if they don’t want to be. The world can see how easily founder Mark Zuckerberg runs rings around US legislators whenever he is brought before them. And despite the offices those questioning him hold, Zuckerberg remains arguably the most powerful person in the room.
Even if it is lip-service, it is a clear sign from Facebook that they need to at least look like they understand the moral responsibility of their position, as the world’s largest content platform. That in and of itself is progress, let alone the possibility that they actually do feel said moral responsibility.
The best-case scenario outcomes of the Christchurch Call won’t be an end to atrocities, and it is probably expecting too much even to hope that it might result in a less hate-filled world. Despite some of the rhetoric around the Christchurch Call, those sorts of goals are way outside of the scope of anything this sort of coalition could accomplish, without resorting to extreme and draconian crackdowns on civil liberties. The relatively limited scope of what has been agreed so far might not be the worst result.
It could have a real impact in diminishing the propaganda value of such atrocities, to both those carrying them out and their supporters. In a world in which terrorist attacks become sickening high-score contests, that is a genuinely worthwhile outcome for the Christchurch Call to be on the way to achieving. But amid their taking on of responsibility here, it shouldn’t be forgotten that much of what now drives these attacks were incubated on Facebook.