By Jacinda Ardern
May 11, 2019
At 1:40 p.m. on
Friday, March 15, a gunman entered a mosque in the city of Christchurch and
shot dead 41 people as they worshiped.
He then drove for six minutes to another mosque where, at
1:52 p.m., he entered and took the lives of another seven worshipers in just
three minutes. Three more people died of their injuries after the attack.
For New Zealand this was an unprecedented act of terror. It
shattered our small country on what was otherwise an ordinary Friday afternoon.
I was on my way to visit a new school, people were preparing for the weekend,
and Kiwi Muslims were answering their call to prayer. Fifty men, women and
children were killed that day. Thirty-nine others were injured; one died in the
hospital weeks later, and some will never recover.
This attack was part of a horrifying new trend that seems to
be spreading around the world: It was designed to be broadcast on the internet.
The entire event was live-streamed — for 16 minutes and 55
seconds — by the terrorist on social media. Original footage of the live stream
was viewed some 4,000 times before being removed from Facebook. Within the first
24 hours, 1.5 million copies of the video had been taken down from the
platform. There was one upload per second to YouTube in the first 24 hours.
The scale of this horrific video’s reach was staggering.
Many people report seeing it autoplay on their social media feeds and not
realizing what it was — after all, how could something so heinous be so
available? I use and manage my social media just like anyone else. I know the
reach of this video was vast, because I too inadvertently saw it.
We can quantify the reach of this act of terror online, but
we cannot quantify its impact. What we do know is that in the first week and a
half after the attack, 8,000 people who saw it called mental health support
lines here in New Zealand.
My job in the immediate aftermath was to ensure the safety
of all New Zealanders and to provide whatever assistance and comfort I could to
those affected. The world grieved with us. The outpouring of sorrow and support
from New Zealanders and from around the globe was immense. But we didn’t just
want grief; we wanted action.
Our first move was to pass a law banning the military-style
semiautomatic guns the terrorist used. That was the tangible weapon.
But the terrorist’s other weapon was live-streaming the
attack on social media to spread his hateful vision and inspire fear. He wanted
his chilling beliefs and actions to attract attention, and he chose social
media as his tool.
We need to address this, too, to ensure that a terrorist
attack like this never happens anywhere else. That is why I am leading, with
President Emmanuel Macron of France, a gathering in Paris on Wednesday not just
for politicians and heads of state but also the leaders of technology
companies. We may have our differences, but none of us wants to see digital
platforms used for terrorism.
Our aim may not be simple, but it is clearly focused: to end
terrorist and violent extremist content online. This can succeed only if we
Numerous world leaders have committed to going to Paris, and
the tech industry says it is open to working more closely with us on this issue
— and I hope they do. This is not about undermining or limiting freedom of
speech. It is about these companies and how they operate.
I use Facebook, Instagram and occasionally Twitter. There’s
no denying the power they have and the value they can provide. I’ll never
forget a few days after the March 15 attack a group of high school students
telling me how they had used social media to organize and gather in a public
park in Christchurch to support their school friends who had been affected by
Social media connects people. And so we must ensure that in
our attempts to prevent harm that we do not compromise the integral pillar of
society that is freedom of expression.
But that right does not include the freedom to broadcast
And so, New Zealand will present a call to action in the
name of Christchurch, asking both nations and private corporations to make
changes to prevent the posting of terrorist content online, to ensure its efficient
and fast removal and to prevent the use of live-streaming as a tool for
broadcasting terrorist attacks. We also hope to see more investment in research
into technology that can help address these issues.
The Christchurch call to action will build on work already
being undertaken around the world by other international organizations. It will
be a voluntary framework that commits signatories to counter the drivers of
terrorism and put in place specific measures to prevent the uploading of
A terrorist attack like the one in Christchurch could happen
again unless we change. New Zealand could reform its gun laws, and we did. We
can tackle racism and discrimination, which we must. We can review our security
and intelligence settings, and we are. But we can’t fix the proliferation of
violent content online by ourselves. We need to ensure that an attack like this
never happens again in our country or anywhere else.
Ardern (@jacindaardern) is the prime minister of New Zealand.