New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, gave a powerful speech in that country’s parliament this week expressing solidarity with the victims of Friday’s terrorist attack that left 50 dead and dozens injured. Ardern also had strong words for the social media companies that enabled the shooter to broadcast his massacre around the world.
“We will look at the role that social media played and what steps we can take, including on the international stage and in unison with our partners,” Ardern said. The prime minister acknowledged that social media alone wasn’t responsible for the shooting, but argued that it did play a role.
“There is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades. But the form of distribution, the tools of organisation, they are new.”
Ardern promised a thorough investigation to ensure that a massacre like the one in Christchurch never happens again and said that there will be a “frank examination” of New Zealand’s gun laws. The prime minister promised she will never utter the shooter’s name in order to deprive him of the notoriety he so desperately wanted.
“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” Ardern said. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
That reference to the ‘publisher versus the postman’ refers to the American view on social media, which is largely shaped by Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, originally passed in 1996. Section 230 designates internet forums as carriers like a telephone company or postal worker rather than a publisher and means that companies like Facebook and Twitter aren’t held responsible for the speech that occurs on their platforms. Prime Minister Ardern is now challenging that idea.
People around the world are taking a hard look at the role that social media plays in our lives as white supremacist fascism spreads. A 28-year-old man from Australia used semi-automatic weapons to kill 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, slaughtering men, women, and children as young as 3 years old. The white supremacist gunman was able to broadcast 17 minutes of his brutal rampage on Facebook and social media companies were slow to remove the video as it was re-uploaded to services like YouTube and Twitter that day.
Facebook insists that fewer than 200 people saw the original livestream of the murders and that none of those people reported the video. But that contradicts an account from a journalist who covers extremism, Jared Holt, who says that he reported the video as it was happening.
“I was sent a link to the 8chan post by someone who was scared shortly after it was posted. I followed the Facebook link shared in the post. It was mid-attack and it was horrifying. I reported it. Either Facebook is lying or their system wasn’t functioning properly,” Holt reported on Twitter overnight.
Protesters hold placards as they march during the Stand Against Racism and Islamophobia: Fraser Anning Resign! rally on 19 March 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Getty Images)
Internet service providers (ISPs) in New Zealand are now blocking some websites that fail to remove the terrorist video from Christchurch. But it’s not clear what specific steps the government might take to restrict social media in the future. New Zealand’s Sky News pulled the Australian affiliate of Sky News from the air in New Zealand after the Australian broadcaster played clips from the shooter’s livestream.
Ardern’s address to parliament was posted to YouTube by her party, the Labour Party of New Zealand, and she stressed that social media wasn’t the only culprit.
“This, of course, doesn’t take away the responsibility we too must show to confront racism, violence, and extremism,” Ardern said. “I don’t have all of the answers now, but we must collectively find them and we must act.”
Settler nations like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States all have a history of white supremacist actions that have been fully sanctioned by the government. Some politicians in those countries, like Senator Fraser Anning of Australia, are still openly white supremacists. Anning was egged by a 17-year-old boy in a move that quickly became a meme.
The gunman explained that he targeted New Zealand because Muslims feel safe there and explicitly mentioned President Donald Trump, who he called “a symbol of renewed white identity.” President Trump denied being an inspiration for the shooter. However, it is worth noting that Trump has previously called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the United States. To combat the narrative that the gunman was inspired by President Trump, Kellyanne Conway told viewers on Fox News to read the shooter’s 70-page manifesto, a baffling and disturbing suggestion.
New Zealand is expected to ban semi-automatic weapons in the coming weeks, something that the United States has failed to do in the wake of its own massacres, which happen with some regularity. Ardern promised during her speech that “our gun laws will change.”
“On Friday it will be a week since the attack. Members of the Muslim community will gather for worship on that day. Let us acknowledge their grief as they do,” Ardern said in her speech.
“Let’s support them as they gather again for worship. We are one, they are us. Tatau tatau, Al salam Alaikum, Weh Rahmat Allah, Weh Barakaatuh.”
Featured image: Getty Images