Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Can we work together to end violent extremism online?

Episode Summary

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is determined to stop the spread of extremism and radicalization online. In the aftermath of the 2019 terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, she saw the livestream of the tragedy go viral across social media feeds, including her own. In response, she led the creation of the Christchurch Call, a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. In this episode, Brad and Prime Minister Ardern discuss the Christchurch Call, how algorithms fan the flames of extremism and the need to address misinformation to create a stronger, more connected society.

Episode Notes

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is determined to stop the spread of extremism and radicalization online. In the aftermath of the 2019 terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, she saw the livestream of the tragedy go viral across social media feeds, including her own. In response, she led the creation of the Christchurch Call, a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. In this episode, Brad and Prime Minister Ardern discuss the Christchurch Call, how algorithms fan the flames of extremism and the need to address misinformation to create a stronger, more connected society.

Since being elected Prime Minister of New Zealand in 2017, Jacinda Ardern has placed wellbeing at heart of her Government’s work. Along with holding the Child Poverty Reduction portfolio, she has championed efforts to tackle long-term challenges like climate change, social inequality, and unaffordable housing. She entered Parliament in 2008 as a list MP, and was later elected to represent the Mount Albert electorate. During this time, she was responsible for a wide range of policy areas, including Social Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage, Children, Justice, and Small Business. Throughout her career, she has been a strong advocate for children, women, and the right to meaningful work.

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Episode Transcription

Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith and this is Tools And Weapons.

Brad Smith: On this podcast I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.

Brad Smith: I'm very excited to introduce today's guest, though I have a feeling she doesn't really require much in the way of introduction.

Jacinda Ardern: I'm not here to argue that social media is good nor bad. It's a tool. And as with anything, it's the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matters. But social media matters a lot. And perhaps much more than we thought.

Brad Smith: That's the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who has become one of the world's most respected leaders. What you just heard is a snippet of the powerful and timely commencement address she gave this year at Harvard University. Prime Minister Ardern and I don't just share a point of view about technology as a tool and weapon. We came together, somewhat by chance, in the wake of the 2019 terrorist attacks and tragedies at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We sat down to see if we could hammer out a response from the tech sector to help combat extremism. We retell some of that story in this conversation, but we also connect the dots, the dots today and into the future, and into the powerful proposition she put forward so eloquently when she spoke at Harvard. My conversation with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern up next on Tools and Weapons.

Brad Smith: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, welcome, welcome to Redmond, Washington. We sit down here two days after you gave the commencement address at Harvard University in Cambridge. I've always thought of that as quite possibly the most prestigious and influential commencement address at certainly any university in the United States. It was a long way from home, I think it's about 9,500 miles from New Zealand, and also sort of a long distance from someone who grew up in a small town in New Zealand. What was it like putting on that cap and gown and being there?

Jacinda Ardern: There were several overwhelming moments. The first was of course at the point I was asked to deliver it in the first place and I was hugely humbled by the offer and the opportunity, but at the same time was told, "You do realize that's the platform from which the Marshall Plan was announced?" And so I felt also this weight of expectation.

Jacinda Ardern: It's fair to say that when I arrived and then the night before saw the chairs all out in place, 32,000 of them. I mean, I grew up in a town of 5,000. It was relatively overwhelming. But at the same time, New Zealand, despite its distance, despite its size, we've had experiences that make us as worldly and as aware as the next nation, but perhaps, perhaps, with the agility and the pragmatism to respond to them differently. And so I do think that we had something to say.

Brad Smith: Oh, I think you definitely had something to say. I mean, I personally thought it was an extraordinary speech. And I have to say, as somebody who's had the chance to work with you and others in New Zealand, you maybe are more connected to the world because you look out and you see the world. And as I think you said to me, once when you're small, you have to move fast.

Jacinda Ardern: Absolutely. And, look, as a small trading nation where our relationships are incredibly important to us and what happens in the rest of the world is important to us, we are outward facing. We don't view things in isolation. I mean, for instance, probably next to our election, possibly even more so, New Zealanders follow very closely the elections in the United States, as we do elections amongst our neighbors, because it impacts on us as well.

Jacinda Ardern: And so that does mean, I think, we think a lot about our place in the world and what's happening within it.

Brad Smith: One of the interesting things about life, I think, is you never know what day will define the life of a person or a community or a country or the world. And the connections between New Zealand and the world, I think were tragically reshaped by the 15th of March 2019, the day of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the deaths of 51 people. A mass shooting, something that people in the United States seem to experience more than in other places, but it was a powerful day in your life. What was that like?

Jacinda Ardern: I still remember the details of that day as if it was yesterday. There was actually a strike amongst our young people on climate change that morning, a reminder of all of the challenges that we continue to face and amongst these tragedies as well. And I was driving in a van out to visit an environmental school when the news came through that a shooting had began in Christchurch. And at that time they weren't clear on whether or not it was a coordinated attack that involved other individuals and so they turned me around and took me to the police station because of their concern. And there I was for what felt like hours, in a room not knowing what was happening, feeling desperate to get there, to just be on the ground and understand what was happening in our community.

Jacinda Ardern: But I also remember hearing that it was at a mosque and immediately understanding that it was likely targeted. In the hours that followed more details came through. And in fact, as I drove to the airport in order to fly to Wellington, I went to put up a post on social media, because I do my own. And as I was going to do that, I saw the live stream. And so I had been told that it had been live streamed, but when I saw that content in my own feed, it occurred to me, and of course, without seeking it, it occurred to me how widespread that content must be. The fact that we were seeing uploads of that content, if I recall correctly, every second, just meant that the proliferation was extraordinary.

Jacinda Ardern: In the days that followed there were many questions from our media about what we were going to do about the fact that it was, A, livestreamed in the first place, but, B, so widely available. And I was very mindful that I didn't want platitudes. I don't think anyone wanted platitudes. We didn't want just a response to that individual act. If anything, we wanted to make sure that the pain and the horror of not just the act itself, but the fact that it was then broadcast, didn't occur elsewhere.

Brad Smith: To me what is extraordinary about your role in responding, that your government's role is, I think you first offered compassion to the families of the victims. You then moved quickly to address issues around guns and access to them. But it is this third dimension, the connection to technology, that I think you singularly have really put before the world, before the tech sector, before people like me and others at other companies. And a lot has happened as a result. And I think you resolved that something important needed to change and would come out of this terrible tragedy. One of those steps forward was the Christchurch Call. You were really the inspiration, the leadership for so much of that. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and how you take stock of it?

Jacinda Ardern: So the Christchurch Call, as I say, we were really committed to this idea of making a forum and an organizing tool for us to think about how it is that people may become radicalized and what are some of the things that we need to build a greater understanding of in response to. Now, the bar here isn't will we never ever see anything horrific live streamed again? Of course, that is everyone's endeavor, but making sure that if or when that happens, responding differently.

Jacinda Ardern: But I think the second area of work continues to be how do we prevent this from occurring in the first place? We don't want an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to mop up the devastation. We want to ensure that as much as we're able to we don't have environments where people we know are radicalized into violent extremism and terrorism through the content they engage with. That's the harder piece, but it is where the real potential lies in the Christchurch Call. And what is fundamental to it is collaboration.

Jacinda Ardern: Governments will not be able to regulate their way out of this problem. Tech companies, perhaps, if they continue to work on their own may not find solutions, but through collaboration together, I do believe we can make progress and we are. It's just not fast enough.

Jacinda Ardern: So the Christchurch Call captures some of the goals that we have. Some of them are things that we know that we need to deliver to deal with, for instance, live streaming of atrocities like those that we experienced. Others were, well, we're not quite sure where we can go on things like algorithms, but let's build a pathway for that. And that's captured in the Call. And then we have those who are signing onto it. And it's a live document because people are able to come through an onboarding process, be they countries and governments or be they companies. And we continue to this day to have new organizations join, to become a part of this really important piece of work.

Brad Smith: And I do think it has changed something about the way the tech sector works. I think it's changed a number of things. But one of the interesting things that most people probably are not familiar with is this organization called GIFCT, the Global Internet Forum To Counter Terrorism. But this specific change that came because of your leadership was this Crisis Incident Protocol. And what that means, tragically, but by necessity, every time there is a shooting, immediately people in tech companies and governments get a notification and we all work together.

Jacinda Ardern: Yes.

Brad Smith: To ensure that content doesn't spread.

Jacinda Ardern: Yeah.

Brad Smith: The way it did after the Christchurch attack.

Jacinda Ardern: For instance, when the more recent horrific attack in Buffalo occurred, I was immediately notified that a protocol had been initiated. And I know as a result of that there's a number of things that then kick in. And now in the aftermath, we've been having discussions around making sure that we're demonstrating the difference that's making, providing some of the data to show the difference it's making. But again, all of us want to be in the position where that crisis protocol never kicks in, where no one gets a notification. And that's why I think now that we have that architecture, and it's really important, let's start having the conversation about how individuals come to be radicalized in this way, because they are increasingly sharing information around how they are being motivated into these atrocious acts. Let's use this information and respond to it because we all have a role to play.

Brad Smith: I want to talk a little bit more about the role that algorithms and technology are playing potentially in sort of fanning the flames of some of this. Before I do that-

Jacinda Ardern: That's a good description, because I think fanning the flames, I don't want for a moment, these conversations to sound as if we have these perfectly formed societies that social media is somehow derailing. That is not the case. It's whether or not there are seeds that are grown, or as you say, fires that are flamed, and how we deal with it.

Brad Smith: It is interesting because I think for years, maybe even centuries, we thought of communications technology as fundamentally advances that brought people closer together. You could see the world, the world could all see the same thing. Literally, even if it was a person on the moon. And yet it does feel as if with the advances in social media we're seeing more fragmentation of audiences. So people in communities, maybe even countries, are not necessarily all seeing the same thing. You recently, even at Harvard, referred to the conversation with Chancellor Merkel, where she noted that.

Jacinda Ardern: Well, I mean, I've always been in awe of her endurance in the world of politics, which is a difficult place to be, if not rewarding. She spent 16 years in leadership and I remember asking her on a phone call one day, "How did you do it?" And she just said that the world is very different now. And then it was in a panel where I heard her expand on those ideas a little bit.

Jacinda Ardern: And again, I'm really loath to sound like a person who's just saying back in the old days, when somehow life was easier and being nostalgic. Social media offers us so much, and as politicians, it does as well. Our ability to connect with people and to bypass what used to be perhaps intermediaries of information, we can connect directly, we can share directly, we can engage one-to-one in a way that isn't moderated by others.

Jacinda Ardern: And that's a huge advancement. When I think about during COVID 19, the ability to jump onto a live stream and have a conversation with people when they're feeling fearful about the unknown, that is a significant tool. So there are a multitude of positives. However, at the same time, has it led us to further entrench ourselves into smaller communities? Has it led us to isolate ourselves away from differing perspectives, without it allowing us to be challenged or engage in debate and dialogue? But probably more worrisome for me is whether or not you can actually have genuine debate and dialogue. If people are consistently exposed to disinformation, which means that your starting point is no longer I take X position and I take Y, it's the fact that you might be debating what is fact and fiction in the first place. And that makes it a very complex environment to deal with the challenges of the day.

Brad Smith: I think the questions you're asking are so important, and I will always remember the second time we met, which was on the 15th of May 2019 in Paris.

Jacinda Ardern: Yes.

Brad Smith: When the Christchurch Call was signed, and it was signed in the afternoon, but in the morning there was a meeting at the OECD.

Jacinda Ardern: Yes.

Brad Smith: And you were there, tech companies were there, and you started to put these questions on the table. It's been three years. Do you find that the tech sector is engaging in this almost fundamental question about how the technology works and whether it actually is bringing people together or driving them apart?

Jacinda Ardern: Do you know, I'm an optimist? And so one thing that I will say is that at the beginning of those conversations, you'll remember right at the beginning we identified concern over the lack of discussion around algorithms. And so we were very keen to embed that into the foundation of the Christchurch Call. But we were also pragmatic about what we could stipulate might be the outcome of that work right from the beginning. Because in the initial stages, I remember the conversations with companies, "Well, we can't have these discussions in an open environment with other companies present. We don't want to expose our IP. We don't want to give away how the sausage is made." Forgive me if that's just a New Zealand term?

Brad Smith: No, no, no.

Jacinda Ardern: Okay, good. It occurs to me-

Brad Smith: Sausage made in the United States, in much of the world.

Jacinda Ardern: Yeah.

Brad Smith: And usually it means you want to see it after it's made.

Jacinda Ardern: Yeah.

Brad Smith: You don't want to see-

Jacinda Ardern: Exactly and how it's made.

Brad Smith: Exactly. Don't tell us.

Jacinda Ardern: But the interesting thing is now we've got this open discussion we are having that is, "Well, actually we can tell you a little bit about the variety of sausage that we've produced. We can actually tell you how it's made." And we are having a much more open conversation about that. And this is why, in my view, the transparency here, getting to a point where we're actually talking about definitive research projects that tell us more about what the outcomes are so that we can understand what is problematic about this? Some people might still not be convinced that this is an issue. I am. But let's have that discussion based on actual research and data. I see much more willingness to do that now, but the time it's taken is not acceptable. It has taken too long.

Brad Smith: I don't think COVID helped.

Jacinda Ardern: No.

Brad Smith: But I don't think COVID can be an excuse. I heard a comment by somebody recently in Washington referring to Jim Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense here, who had been the person's mentor. And she was telling me that Secretary Mattis would always say to her, "Spend 80% of your time understanding the problem and then you can spend 20% of your time solving it."

Jacinda Ardern: Absolutely.

Brad Smith: And I think we're definitely still in the 80% stage here.

Jacinda Ardern: Absolutely.

Brad Smith: And I think we can hope that over the next year we can accelerate progress just to develop a more common understanding of what's going on, how does the technology work, and the problems we need to solve? I do think you're right that when you look at the fundamental health of democracy, almost everywhere, it feels increasingly tied to this question of how technology is perhaps doing more to divide us than even enabling a common understanding of what's happening.

Jacinda Ardern: I agree. And even in having those discussions, it would give the ability even for the public to have a greater understanding or ability to see into the way some of these platforms, not necessarily, we couldn't necessarily share the depths of algorithmic outcomes because actually some of the engineers couldn't necessarily explain to you how they reach those points themselves. But even people understanding that they have curated content.

Brad Smith: Yes.

Jacinda Ardern: I think there is a growing awareness of that, but building that in itself would be helpful. We need to build that public awareness of just what people are exposed to so they have the ability to question their own biases. And we try and do that obviously when we teach young people to assess pieces of information. Let's just make sure that we're building that resilience all the way through, through all of their engagements. And it's not to build this sense of just genuine mistrust constantly everywhere they go. But just to critique their own thinking a little bit. You know, question why it is that they've built these opinions, are they really testing themselves and exposing themselves to differences in a way that doesn't become quite so hostile?

Brad Smith: One of the many things I just thought was so stellar about your commencement address at Harvard is you address these issues in a way that I think speak to people who are close to technology and I think you address them in a way that is really relevant to everyone who uses social media.

Jacinda Ardern: Yeah. I see myself more as a user than anything else, but I also come at it from the perspective of a regulator.

Jacinda Ardern: You know, we're so often asked to solve these problems, but I know, I absolutely fundamentally know, that we are not the only answer.

Brad Smith: One of the other aspects that I thought was interesting about your speech is you had this message, I think, for those of us who might create technology or governments that will consider regulating it, but you also had a message for everyone.

Jacinda Ardern: Yeah.

Brad Smith: To think about how to become a more informed, I'll say consumer of information. Can you share a little bit more about what you're thinking there?

Jacinda Ardern: I see this at two levels and I already touched on it a little bit, just actually building resilience. You know, the more that you understand from where your information is coming from and how it's curated, that in itself is an empowering thing. So being open about that. And I reflect a little bit on our experience of grappling with, for instance, a challenge like COVID-19, when there were so many unknowns. Talking openly about the unknowns with the public was a key part of our response. So let's not just think about this as a problem that needs to be resolved by tech companies and government. If there are unknowns that we are encountering, where we're not entirely clear of how to resolve the problems, let's talk openly about that. Let's not be afraid to.

Jacinda Ardern: But actually, equally, let's not assume that it's not for each of us individually to be a part of the solution as well. And this is where I come back to the fact that, for instance, disinformation. Yes, we can debate how it comes to be so prolific, how it's shared, where the thresholds are for that content from a regulatory perspective. But at the end of the day, it's still information that is shared by someone and so let's talk about our individual responsibility to think about that before we enter into that space. Let's think about the nature of what we are engaging with online. Let's think about whether we're approaching issues with empathy and with kindness.

Jacinda Ardern: I often tell the story to people about the fact that because I came into politics already with a social media presence, from my personal life and you know, I'm 41 now, I'd be probably one of the early politicians who was in that position. And that meant that I all the way through have done my own social media. And for a long time, until actually only I became Prime Minister, I would get all notifications directly to my phone.

Jacinda Ardern: I used to say to people, if you write a comment on my Facebook page, think about it as if it's coming through to me as a text message. Would you write it in the same way? Because it's in many ways, how is it not the same thing? I was getting these notifications directly. I could see the comments in the same way. A human wrote it and a human received it and if we think more about things through that frame, then maybe we would engage differently with one another. And so for all of these big issues, let's still not forget our individual responsibilities to just be good people because that I still think lies at the heart of our solutions.

Brad Smith: Well, I think that's a great way to conclude. I will say we have more work to do. This is, if anything, I think an issue that is perhaps even more important now than it was when we went into the COVID lockdowns.

Jacinda Ardern: I agree.

Brad Smith: So I always like to look around and ask have we made 12 months of progress on something in the last year. This is one where the answer is perhaps no, but I think we have the opportunity to really, frankly, among other things, use your trip to the United States, your visit with the President, your address at Harvard, as a bit of inspiration. And let's see what we can do in the next 12 months and get a year's worth of progress. We need it. Let me put it that way.

Jacinda Ardern: Why don't we check in? As I said, in my speech, I'm hopeful because if nothing else, we actually have created the places where we can work together to do all of these things. Collaboration as a starting point is sometimes half the battle. We're at the table. Let's just make sure that we produce something meaningful now.

Brad Smith: Great rallying cry. Thank you. Prime Minister Ardern.

Jacinda Ardern: Thank you.

Brad Smith: You've been listening to Tools And Weapons with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen.

Brad Smith: Tools and Weapons is produced by Corina Hernandez, Mark "Frosty" McNeill, and Jordan Rothlein, with production assistance from Emma Foley. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Brown and Aaron Thiese. This podcast was edited and mixed by Jenny Cataldo, with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at Run Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft, made in partnership with We Are Listen and A_DA.. Audio from Prime Minister Ardern's Harvard commencement address was used with permission from Harvard University.