On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist walked into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, armed with an automatic weapon and a camera. After using his phone to live stream the intrusion on Facebook, he opened fire. By the time he was done, 51 worshippers were dead and a further 49 were injured. The shooter’s Facebook Live stream had been viewed some 4,000 times before finally being removed and his racist rantings were all over the internet.
The incident was the epitome of an online horror: the murderer was radicalized online, he carried out the murders in the style of a first-person shooter game—aiming for a high body count—and the killings were a performance designed to spread his message of hate.
Yet the massacre was just the latest in a long sequence of white supremacist terror attacks, from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including many children, to the 2011 attack on the Norwegian prime minister’s office and a socialist youth camp that left 77 dead. In all these cases, the terrorists aimed to use the coverage of their deeds to recruit and inspire new followers to carry out copy-cat attacks.
The painful truth is that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media companies made the Christchurch nightmare possible by repeatedly ignoring warnings about the spread of violent extremist content on their platforms. Worse yet, even after the killings, neither they nor governments or civil society groups appeared to have any serious ideas to stop this from happening again.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, did.
She knew she had to act but understood she could achieve little alone as the leader of a small country. If New Zealand imposed new rules on the tech giants, those companies were likely to leave rather than comply with new regulations. But just asking them to do a bit better next time was a clearly inadequate response. So, in an act of great imagination and creativity, Ardern decided to build a coalition of democratic governments, civil society groups, and technology companies to tackle the spread of terrorism and violent extremist content online.
Over the next two months, in partnership with French President Emmanuel Macron, and in consultation with other democratic governments, technologists and nonprofits, Ardern’s team drafted the Christchurch Call, a commitment by governments and online service providers to stop the amplification of terrorist propaganda while protecting individuals’ freedom of expression and human rights. The robust commitments on preserving freedom of speech successfully discouraged authoritarian governments from signing up, making this a massive project of the world’s democracies. Of course, there was one glaring exception: the United States. Once again, the Trump Administration refused to stand by its allies in a time of need.
The governments that did join, such as Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, agreed to fund media literacy efforts that would teach users how to recognize terrorist narratives, and to support the development of industry standards to ensure that reporting of terrorist attacks would not amplify terrorist propaganda. The online service providers agreed to install processes to stop terrorists from uploading and sharing violent content or streaming attacks in real time; to be transparent about the policies they adopt to stop terrorists and violent extremists from abusing their platforms; to prioritize content moderation of terrorist content; and to redesign their algorithms so they no longer encourage radicalization but instead offer positive alternatives. The providers also agreed to strengthen the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), an industry body to act as an information hub for all the online service providers.
The governments and providers committed to work with civil society groups to create effective counter-messaging to online terrorists and to commission academic research to investigate how people are radicalized digitally. At the same time, the Call forcefully emphasized the necessity of governments to protect, and by the providers to respect, the right to free expression under both domestic and international law.
A year later, the Christchurch Call has won global support: 48 countries, the European Commission, two international organizations and the eight largest online service providers have joined the call, working with an advisory network of human rights and counter-radicalization experts to develop practical approaches to combating the spread of online terrorist content.
The Call’s first area of focus was to transform the GIFCT from a talking shop to an independent organization with a 24/7 crisis management function. The online service providers agreed to fund the expansion, and the newly independent body designed a series of crisis response protocols to help the online service providers react to a future terrorist attack.
For instance, New Zealand hosted a simulation exercise in December 2019 with providers, law enforcement, and other government agencies to test their effectiveness, refining the protocols and ensuring that all parties were ready to act in the event of another livestreamed attack. The protocol was soon tested in May 2020, when a shooter in Glendale, Arizona attempted to livestream his attack. The platform companies applied the GIFCT methodology to shut down the streams immediately, blocking any copies from being distributed online. The system had worked.
In other words, Ardern has created a new model of global leadership. The success of the Call has a lesson for governments across the world: They can work together to address the unique nature of the 21st Century terrorist threat.
The United States government, under the Trump Administration, remains an outlier, refusing to join this effort. Much like with the Paris Climate agreement or the Iran deal, the Trump team shows no interest in working with other countries to address urgent global problems.
After toying with the New Zealand and French government throughout the drafting of the Call, the United States decided to snub Ardern and Macron, charmingly announcing that it was “not currently” in a position to join the call on the day of the launch and refusing even to send an observer to the launch event. On the same day, Trump attacked Facebook for removing far-right conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, tweeting about how his allies were being censored, while the White House unveiled a website where Trump supporters could report online liberal bias. The U.S. Embassy in New Zealand issued a remarkably apologetic statement, assuring their host government that the U.S. supported the aims of the Call even if it could not join it.
On background, the Trump team cited free speech concerns with the Call, saying in a formal White House statement that it stood “with the international community in condemning terrorist and violent extremist content online,” and supported the Call’s goals, but that the United States is “not currently in a position to join the endorsement.” This decision generated predictable support from right-wing allies and horror from internationalists, who saw the decision as another example of the U.S. ignoring democratic allies and of walking away from international engagements.
Some American free speech advocates, normally not Trump supporters, took the First Amendment concerns seriously, arguing that just about any international agreement that deals with free speech should be unacceptable to the U.S., while other scholars argued that, as the drafters had intended, “the broad wording and voluntary nature of the Call would not have compelled the U.S. to restrict any First Amendment-protected speech.”
Of course, there is a delicious irony in a president who describes the media as the enemy of the people invoking press freedoms. Even more bizarre, that same president then takes a doctrinaire view of the First Amendment to argue that a voluntary agreement encouraging private companies to stop their own services being used to spread violent extremism is somehow a threat to free expression.
In fact, the Call focuses on what companies can do to fix their processes, and what governments and civil society groups can do to help them while ensuring that free expression is protected. As private companies, the service providers are not bound by the First Amendment anyway. Rather, they make business decisions about what speech they will host. In the U.S., that choice is under the protection of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. An argument of American exceptionalism simply does not fit the facts of this situation.
That’s why a future U.S. Administration, perhaps Joe Biden’s come January 2021, with a greater commitment to combating terrorism and working with allies, might reconsider and decide to join the Christchurch Call.
Indeed, if Biden is elected, his administration will face an enormous list of urgent tasks as it deals with a pandemic that has spiraled out of control, rebuilds the American economy, returns to global engagement, and tackles the now even more urgent challenge of climate change. Many of these projects will need careful thought and detailed work, but in a few cases, just returning to international agreements will go a long way toward establishing a new reality.
At the Munich Security Conference last year, Biden explained to an audience hungry for the return of an America they deeply miss that “the American people understand that it’s only by working in cooperation with our friends that we are going to be able to harness the forces of a rapidly changing world.” This logic underpinned his commitment to returning to the Paris Climate Agreement and to the Iran deal.
This same logic also argues that a Biden Administration should look closely at joining the Christchurch Call, not just as a gesture of solidarity with our allies in New Zealand who are so badly scarred by an act of white supremacist terrorism, but as a practical way of beginning to fight against the scourge of online violent extremism and restoring the internet as a force for good. There are few decisions that are easy to implement, which will bring immediate practical benefits, and build goodwill with allies. For a new U.S. Administration, joining the Christchurch Call could well be one.