Ardern takes aim at social media companies

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received loud standing ovations from graduates at Harvard University after talking about New Zealand's move to ban assault rifles and call social media to account. 

Ardern spoke to the 8000 graduates at the Harvard Commencement Ceremony in Boston today in front of an audience of about 30,000 people during a trip to the United States.

She used her address to call for social media to clean up their act, saying she was concerned about violence, extremism and conspiracy theories that stemmed from social media.

However, it was her comment on New Zealand's move to ban mass assault rifles and gun reforms after the deadly Christchurch terror attacks in 2019 that got her the loudest applause.

The ceremony took place against the backdrop of mass shootings in the US, the latest on Tuesday at an elementary school in Texas where 19 children and two teachers were killed by and 18-year-old.

The most recent shootings in Texas and Buffalo, New York, were marked with a moment's silence for those killed - and when the education students graduated, many held up signs calling for gun law reforms - including "enough is enough" and "end gun violence".

PM to meet Biden 

Ardern has secured a sought-after meet with President Joe Biden that was put at risk due to her pre-trip Covid-19 infection.

She confirmed today that the meeting would take place on Tuesday at the White House and she would also meet with Vice President Kamala Harris.

"My intention is to continue the conversation we had in the Capital yesterday," she told media from Harvard University.

She would be discussing the Pacific region and pushing for the US to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The last visit by a New Zealand Prime Minister was John Key, who went to see President Barack Obama in 2014.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during Harvard...
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during Harvard University's 371st Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Reuters
The Harvard ceremony was also livestreamed and covered by many of the US media.

Ardern wore academic gowns after she was awarded an honorary degree as a doctor of law, her citation referring to her leadership after the Christchurch mosque attacks and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A focus of her speech was for more action by social media companies to try to tackle the spread of misinformation and radicalisation - saying it was becoming a threat to democracy.

She prefaced that by saying she feared the world was at "a precipice" and needed to find a way to deal with big issues without resorting to violence, vitriol or hate.

She took particular aim at the social media companies and algorithms developed to direct people to content they might like.

"And increasingly with the help of algorithms, what we seek, we are served, sometimes before we even know we're looking."

She used the Christchurch terror attack as an example, saying the terrorist had livestreamed the killing of 51 people, it had been widely shared and he had been radicalised online.

She did not directly mention the US shootings, but social media was also a factor in the Buffalo and Texas shootings.

Ardern said the tech companies signing up to the Christchurch Call had resulted in improvements on social media.

However, it was not enough.

"The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it. That means upholding their own basic terms of service.

"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 the user experience is personalised and at worst it means it can be radicalised.

"It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment."

She said New Zealand undertook law changes on gay marriage, abortion, and gun controls with debate but without causing deep rifts in society. But other issues had tested society - she mentioned mistrust over Covid-19.

"Whether it's democratic elections that erupt into violence, or the Covid crisis exposing mistrust of experts, institutions and governments – western democracies are seeing it and experiencing examples and New Zealand is no different."

She said she was wary debate on how to strengthen democratic institutions would be "distorted" and misconstrued as being a bid to hinder freedom of speech.

"But that fear is overshadowed by a greater fear of what will happen to our democracies, if we don't act to firm up their foundations."

She urged the graduates to also take responsibility for their own engagement on social media.

"There's a term that gets thrown around a lot – keyboard warrior. It's used to refer to someone who makes aggressive or abusive posts online, often anonymously.

"I like the name. In my mind, when I read something especially horrific on my feed, I imagine it's written by a lone person unacquainted with personal hygiene practices, dressed in a poorly fitted super hero costume – one that is baggy in all the wrong places.

"Keyboard warrior or not though, it's still something that has been written by a human, and it's something that has been read by one too."

She said she was increasingly concerned about the impact that was having and increasing divisiveness.

Jacinda Ardern with graduating students at Harvard. Photo: Reuters
Jacinda Ardern with graduating students at Harvard. Photo: Reuters

Importance of democracy

Ardern said it was sometimes assumed that the longer a democracy had been in place, the more likely it was to be strong.

"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 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."

Ardern told them she was not an academic: "I acknowledge, the robes on this occasion aren't exactly truth in advertising.

"Rather, I am a politician from Morrinsville. As a point of geographic reference, it's right next to Hobbiton. I'm not actually joking."

She said in Morrinsville "I lived in that important space that sits between difference and division".

"I was raised a Mormon in a town where the dominant religions were Catholic, Anglican and rugby. I was a woman interested in politics, left wing politics, in a region that had never in its entire democratic history, elected anyone other than a conservative candidate."

She said she had never felt isolated as a result of that. "But I am old. And unquestionably, things have changed."

Ardern's speech was peppered with personal touches, beginning with a Māori greeting before making a gentle joke about the size of the occasion, saying she was used to walking into a room and knowing at least one person.

"There are some moments in life that make the world feel small and connected. This is not one of them.

"I do take comfort knowing there are around 30 New Zealanders studying here, and statistically at least one of them will be my cousin."

Ardern met with New Zealand students at Harvard after her speech.

There was plenty of colour at the ceremony. The National Anthem was played on a trumpet with the students cheering and oohing and breaking into applause when the trumpeter hit a particular hard or long note.

It is the first in-person Commencement since 2020 - and several of the speakers referred to the Covid-19 lockdowns that had meant remote learning.

As each school was called they stood to graduate - the law graduates waving judges' gavels and the international school waving plastic inflatable globes.

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