Unlike Lange, Ardern’s campaign takes on not the perpetrators of terrorism, but the social media distributing its artifacts — namely, terrorist videos and manifestos. What is being sought is an international agreement to impose censorship obligations on social media platforms that appear to go beyond those prevailing in many jurisdictions regulating conventional media such as newspapers and broadcasters. Whether it succeeds, however, depends mainly on what such censorship is intended to achieve.
Three possible objectives exist.
Rule parity between traditional and social media
At the very least, the summit might lead to a mutually agreed code of conduct similar to those voluntarily adopted (and in some instances backed by legislative force) by traditional media in most (western) jurisdictions. The French Higher Audiovisual Council has had such a “code of good conduct” covering terrorist attacks in traditional media in place since 2016, albeit operating subservient to freedom of expression provisions enshrined in French and international law.
Unless backed by legislation or regulation, good conduct codes typically impose only “soft” controls on media behavior. They may, in specific circumstances, recommend censorship of content breaching specific societal mores. They usually include procedures whereby individuals can lodge complaints about content that escapes censorship but potentially breaches the code, thereby assisting the community of broadcasters to police the behavior of their peers.
If such a code emerges, the summit will likely be heralded a success by the traditional media because of the “fairness” inherent in their online rivals being held to similar standards to themselves. However, this may not satisfy those calling for a stronger stick to be taken to social media.
Reducing the spread of terrorism
Content censorship presumes that curbing the online distribution of artifacts will reduce the spread of terrorist creeds and thereby reduce terrorist acts, including copycat incidents. This echoes the suicide contagion (or Werther effect) underpinning similar compacts constraining reporting on suicides. (Australia’s code can be found here; the Werther effect came from Goethe’s 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” where the hero’s suicide was alleged to have spawned a wave of real-life copycat events around Europe.)
However, scant evidence exists that these constraints reduce the incidence of suicide. Importantly, censorship may reduce the ability for honest discussions about the content of artifacts, thereby missing an opportunity to use them positively as deterrents.
Furthermore, as social media platforms are not just one-way transmission mechanisms, the identity of the messenger or the information seeker may be as important as the message. Preventing the transmission of artifacts may deprive the perpetrator of notoriety, but it also conceals the identity of those holding the beliefs that underpin them, making it harder for future terrorist events to be anticipated or prevented. Already, it has been identified that active censorship within New Zealand of the March 15 mosque attack perpetrator’s manifesto and video has led to political groups with similar ideologies removing themselves from social media. Censorship also conceals the identity of vulnerable converts who would otherwise be revealed by the act of searching for the offending content.
This begs the question of whether society’s resources should be more appropriately directed toward identifying those intending to commit terrorist acts in the future or removing the artifacts associated with past terrorist actions. Succeeding in the latter at the expense of the former is unlikely to be in society’s long-run (future) best interests.
Nonetheless, on April 4, the Australian government passed legislation making it a criminal offense for either individuals or hosting services to share “abhorrent violent material” online. Singapore also plans to introduce similar legislation, having indicated over a year ago its intention to ban all media coverage of terrorist attacks — despite criticisms that such moves give the country’s interior ministry the power to determine what can be broadcast or published.
Moral virtue protection
Another primary motivation of censorship is to deny access to material deemed harmful to prevailing moral standards. While physical harm is easy to discern, it is harder to define and identify moral harm, not least because moral standards change continually and differ substantially between different groups.
Notwithstanding, those in (legal, social, or other) power derive moral virtue from preventing those in their sphere of influence from exposure to and therefore “harm” from material the leaders deem to be offensive. This can be for apparently benign (e.g., shielding children from pornography) or self-serving (preventing the circulation of alternative ideas to minimize opposition — e.g., the Great Firewall of China) reasons. Regardless, acting decisively — and visibly — is the morally appropriate manifestation of strong leadership protecting strongly held values.
Calling out the “Christchurch call”
Balancing these three motives begs the question of whether the primary objective of the May 15 summit is more conspicuous international political symbolism than genuine anti-terrorism substance. It will surely succeed in the former, but because its target is not terrorism but social media coverage of it, it cannot be held to account for failing to succeed in the latter.
The world’s media following Ardern might do well to remember Lange. For the leader of a small country, making a show on the world stage may matter more in the local long run than actually making a real, positive difference internationally.
Dr Bronwyn Howell is a programme director at the School of Management at Victoria University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was first published HERE.