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Christchurch call - Expert Reaction

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron are hosting a summit in Paris on May 15 (local time) with world leaders and tech company CEOs to discuss how they can prevent social media being used to organise and promote terrorism.


Ardern hopes the attendees will agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’ which aims to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Associate Professor Alistair Knott, Dept of Computer Science, University of Otago, comments:

"It’s great to see Jacinda Ardern taking the initiative in calling for regulation of social media companies in the wake of the Christchurch attacks. Jacinda’s focus is on preventing the posting and dissemination of violent extremist content on social media sites. That's understandable, given the trauma caused by the Christchurch video - and given its potential as propaganda and precedent for other like-minded extremists. However, removing videos of atrocities is essentially a reactive process, that happens after the event. We should also be thinking about proactive reforms to social media platforms, that prevent the growth of extremism.

"What turns people into extremists? Videos of attacks have an effect at one end of the extremist spectrum - but we should also be thinking about processes that move people towards extremism, from more neutral positions. Obviously these are complex processes, but here again, the way information is shared in social networks may play a role. In platforms like Facebook and Twitter, users are shown the kinds of items they have previously shown some interest in. There is some evidence that this pushes users into ‘bubbles’ of increasingly narrow political or religious viewpoints. When Jacinda and colleagues consider how to regulate social media companies, they might want to think not just about removing depictions of terrorist atrocities, but also of exercising some control over the algorithms that choose items for users’ feeds. Small changes could potentially have large effects in reducing the polarisation of opinions that lead to extremism.

"Social media companies have become hugely powerful distributors of information in our society. In some ways, the policies of these companies are like government policies: they affect everyone, and small tweaks can have big effects. At present, tech companies' policies are dictated solely by commercial considerations, rather than the public good. There are good arguments that governments should get more involved in their operation.”

No conflict of interest.
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Associate Professor Dave Parry, Head of Department, Computer Science, AUT, comments:

"In technical terms, simply making preference setup clearer, allowing people to have a 'whitelist' of approved sources and only allowing upload by verified users would go a long way to reducing the viewing of despicable videos like the one recorded in Christchurch. A set of expectations for this and takedown response times, including automated systems to detect suspicious behaviour could form the basis for a reasonable set of rules that can be enforced.

"Although not perfect, this could be enforced on a national level and issues of different levels of censorship avoided. The key element is that social media companies will have to take steps to ensure that users are verified including their age, and that at least within the company, users can be linked to real people. Because of privacy issues, this will also bring the need for the regulations to stop companies simply using this information to increase advertising revenue.

"A set of 'best practice' guidelines may be the most we can hope for from the current meeting, along with some sharing of techniques for suspicious activity detection. Unfortunately, automatic recognition techniques are extremely useful to intelligence agencies, and it is unlikely that much will be revealed from those sources.

"The major conflict in these cases is not between free speech and censorship, it is between convenience and harm. These interventions will make it slightly more difficult to upload your snowboarding exploits, but they will also reduce the number of people who could be greatly distressed and damaged by offensive material. If the leaders can make this point then the meeting will be a success and lead to sensible and acceptable measures.”

No conflict of interest.

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