The horror of such an appalling act being directly broadcasted to so many people around the world provoked New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron to propose the Christchurch Call to Action on May 16th. The initiative, which was also supported by India, Australia, Canada, Germany, and several more countries, as well as several tech companies, sought to prohibit the use of social media in support of violence. It suggested collective, voluntary commitments form governments and companies to prevent the production and dissemination of terroristic content on social media, while still being supportive of  international standards of freedom of expression. It also specifically outlined industry standards for media outlets to apply ethical standards when depicting terrorist attacks, and called for real-time review of live-streams.

In response to the call, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Amazon pledged to update their terms of use, enhance user-report systems, advance technology to recognize dangerous content, and release regular reports on their efforts. The Trump Administration, however, refused to sign on, stating that “While the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement, we continue to support the overall goals reflected in the call” and that “We encourage technology companies to enforce their terms of service and community standards that forbid the use of their platforms for terrorist purposes”.

Some, such as Adrian Shahbaz, a research director for watchdog group Freedom House, have warned of potential dangers that the Christchurch Call could pose to freedom of speech. “There is a tendency after large-scale, national security crises and terrorist attacks to overreact to the problem”, Shahbaz told NPR. “One of the ideas Jacinda Ardern mentioned was perhaps delaying any live-streaming. The fear we have is that we’re sort of sleepwalking towards a future in which all social media posts are filtered prior to being posted.” For better or worse, some of the Call’s signatories also already regulate speech in a far more restrictive manner than the United States. Under French law, individuals can be imprisoned for making supportive statements about terrorists or terrorist attacks. “However, most have identified Trump’s refusal to sign on as being due to his long-standing belief that tech companies are politically biased against conservative voices rather than any universal commitment to freedom of speech.

Earlier in May, Trump stated that he was “continuing to monitor the censorship of American citizens on social media platforms” and declared that “it’s getting worse and worse for conservatives on social media” after Facebook banned several far-right figures including Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson. He also specifically demanded that Twitter unblock right-wing actor James Woods, who was temporarily suspended for using the hashtag “#HangThemAll” in response to the Mueller report. Trump hasn’t been quite so supportive of the freedom of speech of those who don’t support him, such as threatening jail-time for flag burners.  There is certainly a need for a national conversion about the need for laws that address the responsibilities  of social media companies with regards to extremist violence,  but that also keep in mind the constitutional need to protect freedom of speech . Trump, however, does not have a real interest in this conversation, and would rather avoid taking action in preventing terrorist attacks to protect his own supporters.

Resistance Resources

  • Freedom House – An independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world
  • Love Aotearoa Hate Racism – A coalition of unions, migrants, community and faith groups which led an anti-Islamophobia rally last March in New Zealand to support victims of the Christchurch attacks.

Photo by unsplash-logoSara Kurfeß

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