White House refuses to join ‘Christchurch Call’ on extremism

The United States and Europe have very different views about speech. While the US is committed to free speech at all costs, the Europeans are more willing to curb speech when it expresses hate or causes harm. That difference of opinion exploded into view again this week with two diametrically opposed responses to the “Christchurch Call.” That’s the name that’s been given to a non-binding agreement a number of nations and companies have signed, pledging to take action against the spread of extremist views on the internet, after the ones that spurred the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. In that case, the killer published a long, rambling document filled with alleged justifications for his deeds, most of which centered around white-supremacist ideology, and he live-streamed the shooting on Facebook.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has been pushing for the agreement, convening a summit in Paris that included French president Emmanuel Macron, UK prime minister Theresa May and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. “The Christchurch Call to action has a simple premise,” Ardern said. “That tech companies have both enormous power, and enormous responsibility. And so do governments. We each have a role to play in protecting an open, free and secure internet, but this should never be used as a justification for leaving extremism and terrorism unchecked.” Canada, Australia, and the UK signed on, as did Twitter, Facebook, and Google.

The Trump administration, however, said that it would not sign, citing concerns that the agreement would infringe on the right to freedom of expression.

The White House said its position is based on the classic First Amendment principle that the appropriate solution to bad speech is more good speech. But a number of experts—including Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu—argue that bad speech, fueled by the algorithms of giant platforms like YouTube and Facebook, can drown out good speech. The First Amendment isn’t equipped to deal with that; it was designed for a time when the main concern was government control of speech, and control is now in the hands of giant commercial platforms. Some defended the White House, including Cornell Tech law professor James Grimmelmann, who said “government should not be in the business of encouraging platforms to do more than they legally are required to.”

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It’s not just the First Amendment. In the US, social-media companies are covered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from legal liability for anything posted to their platforms. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all said that they are dedicated to removing hate speech and terrorist content from their networks, but the reality is that no one can currently force them to do so. In Europe, however, governments are either passing or considering legislation like the German Netzdg law, which requires the platforms to remove hate speech and other offensive content within 24 hours or face significant fines.

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The Christchurch Call consists of well-intentioned principles aimed at stemming the flow of terrorist and white supremacist content online, such as a commitment to “strengthening the resilience and inclusiveness of our societies.” But as critics point out, there are risks even with the most well-meaning approach. For instance, it incentivizes Facebook and YouTube to remove as much content as possible, even if it arguably doesn’t qualify as hate speech. How will terms like terrorism and extremism be defined, and by whom? These are the same kinds of questions raised by Facebook’s recent proposal to create a “global oversight board”—a panel of experts that decides what content should be removed and when. Who would appoint this panel, and what criteria would they use? International cooperation is good, but the Christchurch Call spawns as many questions as it answers.

Here’s more on the Christchurch Call and extremist content online:

  • Problematic: A group of civil society activists and academics who met with Ardern about the Christchurch Call raised a number of issues with the document, including the fact that the definition of terrorism and violent extremism “is problematic if left to states to individually interpret,” since some governments might use it to squash dissent. The group also said any use of government power to restrict online speech “must be subject to meaningful oversight against abuse or censorship.”
  • Live Time Out: Facebook says it has modified its Facebook Live streaming service in the wake of criticism that the Christchurch shooter was able to broadcast his murderous rampage. The company said that anyone who breaches one of its policies would be banned from Live for 30 days, although a number of critics noted it would be easy enough to get around this restriction by creating a new account. Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, called on Facebook to shut the feature down until it can be made safer.
  • A Load of BS: Sleeping Giants, an advocacy group that encourages boycotts of racist TV shows and other content, said that the free speech arguments made by the White House “are a load of bullshit. These are businesses making billions off of death threats, unfettered racism and streamed real world violence.” Daily Beast national security reporter Spencer Ackerman said the decision was made because “the terrorists are white.”
  • Twitter Says: A statement from Twitter’s public policy division said that the terrorist attack in Christchurch was “a horrifying tragedy” and that the company is open to working with Google, Facebook, and others to “ensure we’re doing all we can to fight the hatred & extremism that lead to terrorist violence.” The company also outlined some of the steps it and the other tech giants have agreed to take, including enhancing their use of technology to detect and remove extremism.

Other notable stories:

  • Fact-checking site Snopes has published a feature on what it says is a coordinated effort by a small, right-wing, evangelical Christian group to hijack Facebook pages and political action committees and use them to build a network of accounts that has been spreading anti-Muslim hate and pro-Trump conspiracy theories.
  • Facebook recently took steps to try to clamp down on the spread of viral hoaxes and other misinformation on its WhatsApp messenger, by limiting the number of messages that can be posted to multiple groups in a specific time period. But a Reuters report says a $14 piece of software allowed political operatives in India to get around those limits and send as many as 100,000 messages in a single day.
  • Peter Moreira writes for CJR about famous author and war correspondent Ernest Hemingway’s tortuous relationship with Collier’s magazine, including an expense claim he filed at the end of his stint covering the D-Day invasion during World War II that totaled more than $13,000, or the equivalent of $187,000 in current dollars.
  • Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post writes about the death of White House briefings under the Trump administration. She asked 15 Democratic candidates for president in 2020 whether they would restore briefings with the media at least once a week, and seven said that they would. The other eight, including Joe Biden, said they would do even better and go back to the previous tradition of daily media briefings.
  • Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, writes about a collaborative journalism project called Stories of Atlantic City, which saw a group of community members come up with “untold stories of resiliency in a city that has been battered by bad news for the last decade,” and a group of media partners committed to tell those stories.
  • Salon Media, one of the oldest online publishers, has agreed to be acquired by an unknown buyer for $5 million, according to a report in the New York Post. The company said in an SEC filing that it has signed a deal that includes a $550,000 down payment and a promissory note worth $3.85 million over two years. But it said there is “no guarantee the asset sale will be completed” and that it might have to file for bankruptcy.
  • Angie Muhs, the editor of The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois announced that she has resigned from the paper in an attempt to forestall any further cutbacks in staffing. The State Journal-Register is owned by GateHouse Media, one of the largest chains in the US. Muhs said that she resigned “to save money on salaries in the hopes that GateHouse would not attempt more reductions in the newsroom.”
  • The Reading Eagle, a family-owned newspaper in Pennsylvania that is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, filed a notice saying that it may have to let its entire 221-person editorial staff go unless it successfully finds a bidder willing to acquire the paper. Bids were expected by the end of the day on Wednesday.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.