‘There must be limits’ to what people can post on social media: Former NZ PM

Published: Updated:

The world needs global regulation for social media to prevent extremist, abusive and untrue content from propagating on the platforms, the former prime minister of New Zealand told Al Arabiya English.

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the United Nations Development Programme who today runs a charitable foundation, said she hoped to build international consensus on the need to put limits on content.

“I do think freedom of speech and expression is extremely important, but I think there have to be codes of conduct where you draw a line. It’s not okay to propagate terrorist beliefs and organizations. It’s not okay to bully a teenager to death. It’s not okay to tell lies about other people,” explained Clark, in an interview with Al Arabiya English during her visit to the UAE.

“In New Zealand, we have statutory regulation of broadcasting and we have quite strong self-regulation of print media, but social media globally has been a just a free-fire zone,” she adds, pointing to the lack of regulation producing a “totally libertarian” attitude to social media in which extremism can thrive.

Clark is no stranger to the consequences of online extremism. In March this year, a white supremacist shot and killed 51 people and wounded a further 50 at a mosque and Islamic center in the city of Christchurch. The killer had posted a manifesto on right-wing forums online, and livestreamed footage of the attacks on several platforms.

Social media companies failed to stop the spread of the footage, which was viewed around 4,000 times during the 17-minute atrocities and repeatedly re-uploaded afterwards.

In the aftermath of the attacks, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, together with French President Emmanuel Macron, issued the “Christchurch Call” – a commitment to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online to stop the internet being used as a tool for terrorists.”

Social media platforms have traditionally been exempted from liability for the content that users publish on their networks, in stark contrast to newspapers and digital news outlets which are subject to national regulations.

While Clark says she is aware of the dangers of “heavy-handed regulation,” she is critical of what she calls the current “libertarian” approach to regulation: “There has to be limits, and so you have to look at how those limits will be defined, and then how will those limits be upheld,” she explained.

Twitter’s recent decision to ban political ads revived the debate over regulation. Facebook continues to make big profits from political advertising and spends millions of dollars lobbying governments around the world to avoid regulation, especially as it relates to the protection of individual data privacy.

Helen Clark is working to support the “Christchurch Call” through her charitable body, the Helen Clark Foundation. In a paper titled “Anti-social media: Reducing the spread of harmful content on social media networks,” the foundation makes the case for greater regulation of social media. Focusing on New Zealand, the report claims there are “significant gaps” in the “regulation of social media companies and their legal obligations to reduce harm on their platforms.”

Her team’s report has received praise from experts within the industry.

“The Helen Clark Foundation’s report is an important contribution to the debate and makes some sensible recommendations to impose a duty of care on platforms to mitigate the risks of harm, to be overseen by a regulator,” the CEO of independent media regulator IMPRESS Jonathan Heawood told Al Arabiya English.

However, since the report was released in May, there has been little legal change in democratic states across the world, according to Heawood.

“We need to see more detail on how the duty of care and ‘harm’ is defined in practical settings before we can judge the impact of these proposals,” he added.

Global solutions – and risks

Clark hopes that the upcoming Paris Peace Forum can be the forum to take her foundation’s ideas global. “The Christchurch Principles” is one of the 114 global governance projects being discussed at the forum, which is taking place November 11-13 and being attended by heads of states and international organizations.

“What the team has done for the Paris Peace Forum, is they’ve drawn up a set of principles around how you approach the issue … and they’ve come up with 10 principles … to take it from the New Zealand level to a global level for a democratic society,” explained Clark.

Yet it is unclear how a consolidated global regulator of social media could emerge or operate without stemming from national and regional governments.

“There is no global body with the democratic legitimacy to impose regulation on social media, so we need to work at a national and regional level to create systems that balance the free speech of users and platforms with the rights of others,” Heawood told Al Arabiya English.

Regulation also inevitably comes with the risk of being abused.

“Autocratic and transitional states” have exploited the narrative around “fake news” to enact laws and regulations which have a “chilling effect” for journalist and civil society groups, added Heawood.

In the Middle East, only Jordan has signed up to the “Christchurch Call.” Most recently, the Iraqi government has shut down internet access for entire parts of the country in the face of widespread anti-government protests.

Clark suggested that as the region has been hit particularly hard by online extremism, “it could be attractive to a wide range of governments to come along with the call and work with the countries like New Zealand, France, Jordan and others.”

Twitter, Facebook under fire

Clark also said that irresponsible use of social media extends far beyond extremism, pointing to bullying, misinformation and political campaigning among other issues.

Clark welcomed Twitter’s decision to ban paid political ads on its platform and said that ads on social media should face similar regulatory processes to broadcast and television adverts.

Her comments come amid recent criticism of social media networks for facilitating the spread of “fake news,” with Twitter’s rival Facebook accused of allowing politicians to pay for adverts on the network which critics have said contain deliberate lies or falsehoods.

Amid signs that the calls for regulation of social media are gaining traction, the prominent Democratic Party US presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren recently said that big tech companies have “too much power” and called for the breakup of big tech giants like Facebook and Google.

New platforms are also presenting new challenges, as the nature of social media constantly evolves. Clark suggests governments should try to stay up to date by hiring “young tech geeks.”

“The governments need to invest capacity into the implications of emerging tech technologies for peace in society,” said Clark. “That is probably going to mean being prepared to recruit people much, much earlier than you otherwise would have. Because they’re the ones who are up with the technology.”

Clark herself has been a high-profile user of social media “since Snapchat,” including during her time as the head of the UNDP and is keen to point out the positives it can bring.

“I found it useful and still do today, for putting ideas out there, drawing awareness to things,” said Clark, also pointing to the benefits on small businesses, advertising agencies, travel, and other sectors.

She also pointed to the role of social media in the Arab uprisings of 2011, although noting that they didn’t all turn out successfully.

“I think we can all see the potential for good and connecting. But there is a balance to be mindful of, and [we need] to work out how to have a regular, true response,” she added.

Helen Clark, former PM of New Zealand, official photo (Supplied)
Helen Clark, former PM of New Zealand, official photo (Supplied)