How can upcoming social media efforts be 'global' if they ignore Asia?

2019-04-29 21:06:07

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's "global" summit to address violence and extremism online appears to exclude — or ignore — some of the world's biggest social media platforms. Katie Kenny reports.

World leaders and technology company executives are meeting next month in an effort to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

"What we're trying to tackle here is a global issue and therefore I think requires a global response," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week, when she announced she would be co-hosting the summit with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, all headquarted in the United States, are confirmed attendees. But thus far, there's no evidence technology companies from other countries will be there; despite the fact social media platforms in China, for example, are as big, or bigger, than their American counterparts.

The summit, on May 15, will be held alongside related events already planned for a gathering of digital ministers from leading industrial nations. On May 14, Ardern will also meet with civil society leaders to discuss the 'Christchurch Call', the name of the agreement to be forged between governments and technology companies.

Ardern hasn't clarified what the agreement is likely to contain. But addressing concerns about infringing freedom of speech, she told reporters: "This isn't about freedom of expression. This is about preventing violent extremism and terrorism online."

It makes sense to confront Facebook first, given the white supremacist gunman in Christchurch, who shot dead 50 people at two mosques on March 15, used the platform to live stream the terror attacks.

Facebook removed the footage within minutes, but by then it had been viewed about 4000 times, and saved and shared around the world. Over the next 24 hours, Facebook removed 1.5 million videos of the attacks. More than 1.2 million of those were blocked at upload.

Twitter and YouTube also acted swiftly, but struggled to keep up with users uploading new copies of the footage. YouTube later revealed new uploads appeared on its site "as quickly as one per second".

Chinese social media platforms, however, were relatively slow in censoring the content. The video was easily found on Weibo, described as China's Twitter, and multi-purpose messaging app WeChat, days after the massacre, ABC reported.

"They took 48 hours to take down the Christchurch video, and that's not surprising — I don't think it was political priority," says Dr Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in social media at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

China is known for its online censorship and interference, she says: "They're good at removing content."

While she can't comment on political motivations, she says from a technical perspective: "If something is a priority, it's taken down fairly quickly."

The content was eventually censored, but there's been little said about the delay. Or about social media platforms in Asia, at all.


Weibo has around 430 million active monthly users (Twitter has around 326 million). WeChat, the biggest mobile app in China, has more than a billion active monthly users. Initially seen as a messaging app, it can now be used to make voice and video calls, mobile payments, transport bookings, and food orders.

So why wouldn't they be included in so-called global discussions?

In short, because New Zealand and Australia don't have a lot of leverage over them, Barnet says. "It makes sense to focus on countries that are traditionally aligned and tend to support each other, with respect to this kind of thing."

Chinese social media platforms aren't the only main ones in Asia. The most popular messaging apps in South Korea and Japan are KakaoTalk and LINE, with more than 50 million and 217 million monthly active users, respectively.

And their reach isn't limited to Asia. WeChat, for example, has almost 200,000 monthly active users in New Zealand. That number grows with incoming Chinese travellers, and is only going to continue growing, says Henry Chung, associate professor in marketing at Massey University.

"It will be a pity if they don't participate in the discussion, because I think they have huge social responsibility as well," he says. Without them, there will be a "big hole" in any global efforts.

Facebook remains the market leader in social networking, but for how long? "Technology changes quickly," Chung says. "We really need to get non-American players involved, so we can have a universal, integrated effort."

InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter says for the 'Christchurch Call' to be successful, it has to be inclusive. It makes sense for New Zealand to work with other like-minded countries, at least initially, he says.

"That said, just as the internet is global, there are many platforms that work in many countries. The voices of those countries and the people who live in them need to be part of setting out what we are all looking for from the internet."

That doesn't mean we'll see global agreement, he adds. "But it does mean that we have to respect the global nature of the internet and the fact that important decisions about its future need to involve everyone."

Four days after the attacks, media reports started noting, and criticising, Facebook's lack of response. Privacy Commissioner John Edwards sent the company an email saying its silence was an "insult" to the nation's grief.

Two weeks after the attacks, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg published a letter, saying the company was "exploring" live stream video restrictions.

Finally, representatives agreed to meet Edwards in his Wellington office on April 3. He asked if the company had made any changes to its live-stream service since March 15. It hadn't.

Edwards is currently in the United States for meetings, but a spokesman says they had focused on Facebook because it had hosted the gunman's video in real time on its platform.

"Had the gunman used Weibo or WeChat, then it's probable we would have made contact with those agences and [Edwards] would have been critical of them in the same way he has been of Facebook's lack of safeguards around its live-streaming services."

Facebook remains the single most popular social network used by Kiwis. "The company holds a lot of personal information about New Zealanders, more than any other social media platform."

Facebook would not confirm details of a conversation between chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ardern, but the company has said it will send "one of its top executives" to the summit.

Ardern has acknowledged achieving practical change will be "incredibly difficult".

"It is difficult no doubt, that's why I think if we can build as broad an alliance [as possible] we have a greater chance of success."

When asked, repeatedly, if Ardern had considered the role of technology companies from outside the US, a spokeswoman said further information on the summit will be provided in coming weeks.

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