Since the March 15 attacks, New Zealand has led the Christchurch Call - a global effort to address the role the internet plays in radicalising extremists and spreading violent content. 

After nearly three years of work, some experts are asking if it goes far enough.

The 17-minute live stream of the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks was only watched live by 200 people but 24 hours later, it had been reposted 1.7 million times.

Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) media professor Peter Thompson said streaming platforms and our Government were unprepared for a live streamed attack and how quickly it would spread online.

“There was shock and horror at the fact it had been allowed to proliferate seemingly without anyone having any idea of what buttons to press to take it down,” Thompson said.

To help solve this, in May 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron formed the Christchurch Call - a collective looking to address the role of the internet in radicalising extremists.

The main goal of the Christchurch Call was to make sure video and images of extremist attacks wouldn’t spread the same way it did after March 15.

In the nearly three years since, New Zealand and France have been joined by 55 other governments and major online service providers such as Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Microsoft and Google.

There has been progress. Leaked Facebook documents showed it has reduced the time its algorithm detects graphic violence in live streams from 4.5 minutes to 12 seconds.

But while everyone involved with the Christchurch Call can agree violent, extremist imagery should be removed from the internet, Thompson said it is more difficult agreeing on how far we should go to stop extremists from emerging in the first place.

This cuts to the heart of one of the fundamental debates of our time, Thompson said.

That debate is: Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?

Hate speech vs free expression

The internet has become “the most important tool” for the recruitment, radicalisation and planning of right-wing extremists - like the March 15 terrorist, research by Geneva Centre for Security Policy found.

On fringe forums and websites, people can discuss racist and hateful beliefs legally and be protected by many countries' definitions of the right to free expression, Thompson said.

By and large, the line at which free expression becomes illegal is when someone directly calls for violence against a particular group.

Around the world there is debate about whether this approach is allowing radicalisation to happen, and if broader hate speech restrictions could stop people becoming violent extremists in the first place, he said.

“There is a period of radicalisation before people take up arms. People are asking, ‘could we nip it in the bud?’”

David Bromell, a senior associate at the VUW Institute for Policy and Governance studies, said there are concerns that regulating speech beyond direct incitements of violence gives governments and technology companies too much control over the free exchange of ideas that are necessary in a liberal democracy.

“In a diverse society like New Zealand, where people want and value different things, we are not going to like, agree and approve of each other’s likes, beliefs and values,” Bromell said.

Bromell said we need to learn to “live with that inevitable conflict without recourse to violence”.

“We don’t have to like each other. It's actually ok if we hate each other. The emotion of hate is not something the state can govern.”

Abdur Razzaq, a member of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, said the debate about free speech focuses too much on theoretical points of view and not enough on the lived experiences of those who face hate speech regularly. 

“We live the reality of this, and lived experience has to be factored in. We need decisions to be based on the type of hate people experience, and its impact on them.”

Razzaq said he believes if hate speech was taken more seriously, based on the March 15 terrorist’s online conversations, the terrorist would have been caught long ago.

The Government has proposed new hate speech laws that would broaden out the current legal criteria to include abuse, insults and threats that incite, maintain or normalise hatred towards a group of people.

This proposal is still in the draft and consultation phase, and will need to be drafted into a bill before it can progress through parliament and possibly become law.

Former National Party leader Judith Collins and ACT party leader David Seymour have both said they would fight any hate speech regulations that went further than restricting inciting violence.

A whole society approach

Anjum Rahman is the co-chair of the Christchurch Call advisory network, which is made up of different organisations.

Some of these organisations represent tangata whenua, ethnically diverse people, disability groups and others who have a range of perspectives on human rights, freedom of expression, digital rights, counter-radicalisation, victim support and public policy.

Rahman said when trying to address hate online or in legislation, there are often complications and unforeseen consequences.

For example, after March 15, a tech company pulled thousands of videos of violence in Syria down.

Rahman said those videos could possibly be evidence of war crimes that is now unavailable to international or domestic courts.

Rahman said what people were currently seeing in Russia was an example of how governments cannot always be trusted with censorship.

However, there is a way to address hate speech that doesn’t require any of these strong-arm approaches, Rahman said. 

It’s to reduce the number of people that hate each other in the first place.

“What we are doing offline is as important as online. Building connections between people, building understanding. That human-to-human contact makes it so much harder to hate,” Rahman said.

The New Zealand government has already begun work on understanding barriers to social cohesion through the Department of Internal Affairs.

The foundation of social cohesion is tackling inequity and addressing the disparities in living conditions that cause jealousy, and resentment between people, Rahman said.

“We need to look at things like decent wages, work, food, access to education, health and housing. These are all critical pillars of a counterterrorism strategy.”

Top Image: A cracked screen over now shutdown website 8Chan, which was widely used by fringe extremist groups. Credit: Baz Macdonald.

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