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The Christchurch Principles: Countering online hate with online democracy

This unprecedented horror shocked the world, yet did not surprise it. The live-streamed attack was intentionally designed to be broadcast on social media, in order to appeal to a far right white supremacist audience. The genesis of the project we plan to present at the Paris Peace Forum 2019, was our desire to contribute to a national and international effort to ensure that social media becomes less destructive to democracy, and to society in general.

seek to develop a set of principles, inspired by democratic theory, which social media companies, civil society and government can draw on when deciding what social media governance should look like. We believe that the internet should be a place of equal participation. That is, internet users should be able to, in an ideal world, participate in social media as equals, which includes the public sphere as it exists online and offline. Where equality of participation is impeded, whether by regulation or by platform design, a correction or redress is required.

We see the Christchurch Principles as complementary to efforts taken by the New Zealand government as part of the ‘Christchurch Call’. This government-led initiative is limited to violent and extremist content, and while it is understandable for policy makers to focus on these areas where agreement is most likely to be achieved, we see these Principles to be more ambitious, and to change the Overton window of what feels possible.

“New technologies and an increasingly interconnected world have the potential to improve human lives, foster peace, and advance development, but, if left unchecked, also have the potential to sow the seeds of discord and hate, and undermine the bonds of trust and reciprocity that democracy is founded upon.”

Because the Christchurch attack is just the tip of the iceberg. Violent, extremist content continues to spread, terrorist radicalisation continues to be incubated online, and democracies worldwide are struggling to respond effectively to ‘fake news’. And the challenges continue to evolve. New technologies and an increasingly interconnected world have the potential to improve human lives, foster peace, and advance development, but, if left unchecked, also have the potential to sow the seeds of discord and hate, and undermine the bonds of trust and reciprocity that democracy is founded upon. As such, the Christchurch Principles seek to strengthen existing democracies in the face of these challenges, and to encourage democratic engagement in the way that government, civil society and businesses exercise their responsibilities in the digital era.

We expect our principles to cover:

Responsibilities for government

There is growing acceptance in democracies that government regulation is a necessary fix in the face of social media platforms that have grown too fast and accepted too little responsibility. Government regulation should monitor company behaviour, protect free expression, reinforce the need for transparency for all parties, and invest in the infrastructure necessary for freedom of expression in their countries.

Governments have many other tools, however, and should not stop there. They should consider investing in models of public broadcasting that offer opportunities for independent media.

Responsibilities for civil society

Many civil society groups aimed at the internet have focused their lobbying efforts on what governments should avoid — for example the civil society statement accompanying the Christchurch Call (the ‘Civil Society Positions on Christchurch Call Pledge’, prepared for the Civil Society leaders’ Voices for Action meeting on 14 May 2019) was primarily concerned with the risks of overreach.

Areas singled out for criticism included: heavy-handed content regulation; intrusive government monitoring of platforms; filters of content at the point of upload, a practice that would, in their view, over-regulate legitimate content, and onerous sanctions on the platforms which means that they have large incentives to take down content but limited incentives to leave up legitimate but difficult content. The harms from the existing situation (and possible solutions) were not substantively addressed — namely that violent content is being used to sow discord, and to encourage greater and targeted violence.

We argue it is necessary to better integrate human rights and democratic principles into civil society, as well as government and business approaches to social media. Equality of participation is a useful overarching principle, under which we intend to expand a more detailed agenda.

A new role for social media platforms

Companies should open up their processes and proposals to public comment and, when they adopt new rules about content, explain clearly how they arrived at the changes. Key to this principle is how platforms are accountable to their users, and that they hear and respond to a diverse range of voices. This could take new and innovative forms which we intend to discuss further in Paris.

We look forward to discussing our work further at the Paris Peace Forum in November!

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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Katherine Errington, Founding Executive Director of the Helen Clark Foundation

This publication is written by Katherine (Kathy) Errington. She is the Founding Executive Director of the Helen Clark Foundation; a think tank based in Auckland, founded by former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark who serves as Patron. Previously Kathy worked as a diplomat in the New Zealand embassy to Japan from 2013–2018. You can learn more about the foundation here.

The Helen Clark Foundation will be presenting their project ‘Christchurch Principles’ at the Paris Peace Forum’s second edition in November 2019.

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