Ardern wants social media giants to shoulder responsibility

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Harvard University on May 26, 2022 (Harvard Photo)

Boston, May 27, 2022
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After the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether the US would be a Monarchy or a Republic.

“A Republic, if you can keep it,” was his response.

Two centuries later, at Harvard’s 1989 Commencement, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto echoed Franklin’s warning: “We must realise that democracy … can be fragile.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered a similar reminder at Commencement on Thursday, May 26, 2022, updating the theme for our times. When facts and fiction have become a matter of opinion and the trust that underlies democracies is being eroded, blind faith in the resilience of democratic governance is short-sighted, she said.

Blind faith and short-sightedness

“It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts, and government — and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years,” Ardern said.

“It ignores what happens when, regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested, facts are turned into fiction and fiction turned into fact. … It ignores the reality of what we are now being confronted by every single day.”

Ardern laid part of the blame for misinformation on social media platforms, the companies that run them, and the algorithms that create internet echo chambers.

“I am not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad,” she said.

“It is a tool. And as with anything, it is the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matter. That means recognising the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments that we’re in — that algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us, what we see and where we are directed, and that at best this means user experience is personalized and at worst it means it can be radicalised.”

Graduates at the Harvard University Commencement on May 126, 2022 (Harvard Photo by Rose Lincoln)

Online radicalisation

Ardern noted the 2019 murder of 51 people in two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shootings were livestreamed on social media. Investigators found that the killer had been radicalised online.

“The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it,” said Ardern, whose government passed restrictions on semiautomatic firearms and high-capacity magazines after the killings.

Ardern pointed out that individuals also bear responsibility. How we use technology is an individual decision, she said, as is how we interact with those with whom we disagree.

Source: The Harvard Gazette

Our Staff Reporter adds:

Ardern mentioned the following:

Democracy can be fragile.

This imperfect but precious way that we organise ourselves, that has been created to give equal voice to the weak and to the strong, that is designed to help drive consensus – it is fragile.

For years it feels as though we have assumed that the fragility of democracy was determined by duration. That somehow the strength of your democracy was like a marriage – the longer you would have been in it, the more likely it was to stick.

But that takes so much for granted.

It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government – and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.

It ignores that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue and that even the oldest regimes can seek to control these forums, and the youngest can seek to liberate them.

It ignores what happens when regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested – when facts are turned into fiction, and fiction turned into fact, you stop debating ideas and you start debating conspiracy.

It ignores the reality of what we are now being confronted by every single day.

Where I come from, we have a parliamentary representative democracy. Without giving you a litany of fun facts on New Zealand you are unlikely to need again –here is the brief version.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s full speech appears here.

 

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