Full of Sound and Fury: The Christchurch Call and Online Extremism

By Nick Hanne

It's easy for a story to get buried beneath the sheer volume of headlines which churn through the relentless modern news cycle. So, you could be forgiven for missing coverage last week of the startling revelation that the Christchurch Call suppressed a report by an independent auditor who criticised the Call's international partners for failing to live up to their pledge to fight online extremism. 

India specifically was identified, but it seems the pattern extends to quite a number of other Call partner countries including Canada. Newstalk ZB broke the story. In an interview with Milton Mueller, founder of the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech, Heather Du Plessis-Allan asked whether the Call led by the former NZ prime minister Dame Jacinda Ardern was still fit for purpose in light of this latest revelation of such self-negating behaviour. Mueller explained that after his organisation's report was badly received by the Call's advisory network leaders, led by the Call's Secretariat - NZ and France - the auditors were "indirectly threatened" that if their adverse reports were released it would be highly embarrassing for all involved. It became clear, concluded Mueller, that in monitoring whether effective action was being taken by the Call's international partners to combat online extremism "civil society participation is pointless." Governments, he mused, would decide which of their self-subscribed commitments they would honour. And in the case of the Call's international partners that answer was easy: none of them. 

There are two salient admissions here. One is that the governments themselves within the Call network are not living up to their pledges to combat online extremism, not just the Big Tech companies - Meta, YouTube, Microsoft, Twitter/X - who have since 2019 at the Call's creation been regularly excoriated by experts and commentators for doing a poor job of policing user content. Algorithms and billionaire tech moguls were considered the great culprits of the unbridled proliferation of online hate, while government leaders who jetted between summits in Paris, Ottawa and New York delivering homilies on "corporate responsibility" were beatified by the international press. 

Yet ever since this most recent revelation about the Call network's hypocrisy almost nothing has been said about the matter in the NZ press - aside from Newstalk ZB and The Platform – and a brief comment from Chris Hipkins on why the government needed to now step up, show some leadership and lay out a clear vision for the Call's future. He omitted to mention that the controversy in question had occurred during his own brief term as prime minister in 2023. But why ruin a convenient political point scoring opportunity with an admission of personal culpability, right? 

Part of the reason for the current press silence probably has to do with the timing. With the Australian e-Safety Commission duking it out with Elon Musk across the Tasman in federal court over whether footage of a bishop's stabbing at the hands of a homegrown terrorist should be free to circulate on X, most of the media coverage has sided with the government in Canberra rather than the American billionaire tech mogul.  

After decades of dealing with terrorist violence, you could be forgiven for thinking the tax dollars spent and countless hours clocked up by governments in the West might have got us at least somewhat closer to a long-term solution which honours the Bill of Rights while counteracting extremism online.

That would be a stretch. Terrorism continues apace. But we do know two things that have always been recognised as axiomatic of free speech.

The first point is that violent extremists - whatever their creed - represent the antithesis of a free-thinking democratic society and the existential threat their ideological motivations pose to a nation must be dealt with pre-emptively, when at all possible, to avoid harm being inflicted on innocents.

But the second point is that any pre-emptive measures which depend on the ‘expert’ ideological assessment of a suspect before he or she strikes incur by their very nature a substantial risk of sweeping up innocent victims in an unjust dragnet.

Determining the limits of free speech in cases of online extremism is an exercise fraught with moral and legal complexities, and past attempts to solve this particular Gordian knot in a single democracy alone have literally kept legislatures and courts busy for centuries. To do so everywhere all at once in a way that honours a range of civil liberties' regimes while keeping people safe from terrorism would have been quite simply beyond even Alexander the Great. Or Dame Jacinda, for that matter. 

The case of the Australian e-Safety Commission attempting to bring X to heel illustrates just why. X, like its compatriot tech companies, exists in its current form because of the U.S. First Amendment. American free speech provisions have always been more permissive than other nations' free speech codes. Now consider how, if these tech giants are headquartered in the U.S., we will ever see them yield to non-American standards of censorship if their own constitution affords them rock-solid legal protection in the one economy that matters more to them than any other. It's true that after Trump declined to answer the Call’s call in 2019, the U.S. State Department under the Biden administration has since embraced the general aims of Ardern’s vision for the internet, but as the legal pundits have repeatedly pointed out: there's just no getting around America's founding document. If an American wants to post content that is permitted under the First Amendment, U.S. courts will uphold that right. And once that content is up, no matter how shrill the demands of an Australian prime minister (or any other) might become, that content isn't coming down. It has also been rightly pointed out that those calling for more censorship have failed to argue coherently which videos should stay on the platforms and which should go. For example, why is the nine-minute video of George Floyd's murder by asphyxiation held by these would-be censors to be lawful - and even considered necessary for public education in the matter of police brutality - but the less graphic, and arguably less harrowing, non-fatal attack on the Sydney bishop objectionable to point of needing removal? I'm not suggesting that certain rules for discernment don't exist in law, or that censorship of certain violent material isn't needed. Clearly, we don’t want or need everything up online. I, like the vast majority of New Zealanders, have no desire to view the footage of the 2019 Christchurch mosque-massacres – certain horrific images are without doubt beyond the pale. However, even if we all agree that the Christchurch tragedy was more extreme by several orders of magnitude than almost all other modern tragedies, there must still be some moral logic that establishes where the threshold for content exclusion ought to be. Those who have demanded so frenetically in Australia in recent weeks for injunctions on online content need to articulate a framework for censorship which is both clear and consistent. I have not seen any evidence of a rational model being presented for public consideration by either a civil or political authority in any of the countries in question. Perhaps it is the kind of problem that cannot be determined by reason alone. But if that is the case, are we limited to what the eyes of the average person on the street might consider psychologically tolerable or intolerable? If not that, then what metric?

While it appears that current approaches are not leading us toward any effective new strategies in dealing with online radicalisation, some serious lessons can be learned about what happens when an organisation like the Christchurch Call takes it upon itself to set standards of censorship. The U.K. government's Prevent programme unfortunately has a severe case of this problem. 

Prevent, a division of the U.K. Home Office, was created to combat the rise of homegrown Islamism in the aftermath of the 2005 London terror attacks. It has a budget today equivalent to $100 million NZ dollars. Yet despite 80% of all terror attacks in the U.K. in the past two decades being classified as Islamist in motive, while only 10% was from the extreme right wing, the proportion of Prevent spending on these categories is now allocated inversely. Concerned at reports of "mission creep" the U.K. government commissioned an independent review of Prevent. The findings summarised by Sir William Shawcross as lead investigator indicated a severe lack of accountability within Prevent and a general disregard for its initial charter. Perhaps the most alarming detail in the report was the revelation that RICU, a unit within Prevent, had compiled a list of texts and thinkers deemed "problematic" and likely ideological primers or drivers for extreme right-wing radicalisation. Among this notorious catalogue of despicable characters stood William Shakespeare, John Milton, George Orwell, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and John LeCarre. Apart from the fact that all of these figures had been white and male, it is still unclear quite what landed them together under this ignominious designation. As one cynical observer suggested, the list resembled the Western literary canon. The popular Netflix series House of Cards even made it in along with the iconic 1970s British TV comedy 'Yes, Minister'. The whole situation is so ironic it beggars belief. Even after the Shawcross Report was released many of the most serious recommendations for reform have gone unheeded. Sir William himself has since publicly called for accountability over its implementation. But still nothing much has happened. 

Would something like this ever happen in NZ though? Well, we know it already has. The Christchurch Call has gradually expanded its focus to include gender critical activism, among other undesirable activities, on its list. And even though it has been found absolutely wanting in its chief mission, the Call yet continues as an organisation within government, though not it seems in any way directly accountable to parliament. While indications are that the coalition Government intends to make an announcement on the future of the Call, no word from the Beehive has thus far come forth. Who knows if it ever will. The current prime minister appears to be more concerned with more pressing matters. So, the news cycle being what it is, yesterday's definition of online censorship may well be tomorrow's fish and chip paper. 

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