Wonderful news said all the Sri Lankans. But why Queensland, all the Australians asked. Fifteen years ago, a Rotary World Peace Fellowship award offered seven universities around the world to undertake a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. I chose the University of Bradford. I was awarded a place at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. I didn’t complain. The scholarship was a chance to get out of Sri Lanka and rigorously study what I had till then done on the ground, at a time when violent conflict dynamics were, after some years of relative calm, rising rapidly. My Australian friends, however, were concerned that I would face in Queensland a degree of discrimination and intolerance they said I would never encounter in Sydney or Melbourne. I didn’t know enough to argue and expected the worst. After two years of extensive travel within the state and country, I returned to Sri Lanka experiencing very little along the lines I was warned about. Others though, at the same time, had a different experience – never physically violent, but far more verbally abusive. For them and I, this othering was at the margins of society. Well over a decade ago and without social media, violent extremism and ideology had to be actively sought after to be engaged with. Racism wasn’t digitally dispersed.
It is with an enduring affection of Australia that I am deeply concerned about disturbing new legislation, passed hurriedly last week, which uses the terrorism in Christchurch to justify overbroad controls of social media. The central focus of my doctoral research at Otago University is technology as both a driver of violence and a deterrent. How, today, social media promotes hate or harm is well known and widely reported. As with any generalisation, though elements of truth exist, the simplification of a complex problem results in illegitimate targets of fear or anger. Social media companies, for their part, are irascibly unmoved by what for years those like me have warned them about, around the abuse of platforms by those who seek to profit from violence. Coherence and consistency in policies that respond to the seed and spread of violence are lacking and resisted. However, significant changes in stance, response and policies are coming. The terrorism in Christchurch is responsible for accelerating globally what was sporadically mentioned or implemented with regards to safeguards around the production and promotion of content inciting violence, hate and discrimination. However, we must resist what appear to be simple answers to complex challenges, whether it comes from governments or big technology companies.
Violent extremism has many drivers, both visible and hidden. It doesn’t bloom overnight. Social media, inextricably entwined in New Zealand’s socio-political, economic and cultural fabric as it is back home in Sri Lanka, cannot be blamed, blocked or banned in the expectation that everything will be alright thereafter. Driven by understandable concern around the dynamics of how the terrorism in Christchurch spread virally on social media, the Australian legislation – rushed through in just two days without any meaningful public debate, independent scrutiny or critical input – doesn’t address root causes of terrorism, extremism or discrimination.
Amongst other concerns and though it sounds very good, holding social media companies and content providers criminally liable for content is a very disturbing template and precedent. American corporate entities are now required to oversee to a degree technically infeasible and humanly impossible, information produced on or spread through their services. This risks the imposition of draconian controls over what’s produced, judged by hidden indicators, with little independent oversight and limited avenues for appeal. As a global precedent, the law is even more harmful, allowing comparatively illiberal governments to project or portray as the protection of citizens, parochial laws essentially that stifle democratic dissent.
David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of expression, is also deeply concerned. In an official letter to the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kaye stresses, amongst other more technical, procedural and legal points, the need for public review and proportionality, international legal obligations on the freedom of expression and imprecise wording in the law, which is entirely removed from how digital content is generated in society today, and by whom. And herein lies the danger for New Zealand too. Politicians, under pressure to respond meaningfully, need to assuage the fears of a grieving country through demonstrable measures. The tendency is to pick an easy target and push through solutions that look and sound strong. The underlying drivers of violence and conflict, however, simmer and fester. Measures taken to control and curtail gun ownership are welcome, and arguably, long overdue. Policymaking around social media, however, is a different problem set that cannot be as easily, or concretely, addressed.
This is not a submission to do nothing. Rather, it cautions against the understandable appeal of following the Australian response and law. Steps around the non-recurrence of domestic terrorism must certainly embrace aspects of social media regulation and related legislation. The public must be involved in this. We know already that social media reflects and refracts – mirroring values of consumers as well as, through ways academics are struggling to grasp fully, changing attitudes and perceptions of users over time. This requires governments to iteratively work with social media companies on checks and balances that systemically decrease violence in all forms.
Elsewhere in the world, politicians who know the least about social media seek to control it, and those who know more or better, often abuse it. Kiwis, led by PM Ardern’s government, have a historic opportunity to forge a response to terrorism – relevant and resonant globally – that incorporates how best government can work with technology companies to protect citizens from harm. Australia, with the best of intent, gets it very wrong. New Zealand, with a greater calling, must get it right.
This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 16 April 2019, under the title ‘A Historic Opportunity’.