Today the State Department announced the United States will join the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online, “formally joining those working together under the rubric of the Call to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting the Internet.” A statement from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the US will join the Christchurch Summit on May 14th.
In March 2019, an Australian man killed dozens of Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attacks were announced on the online message board 8Chan before they began, and the killer live streamed the murders on Facebook before the video propagated hundreds of thousands of times on the social media platform. The attack served as an inspiration for extremists globally, including the perpetrator of a mass shooting in El Paso that killed 20 in which the shooter referred to the Christchurch killer’s writings in a manifesto; and another at a synagogue in Poway, California that appeared to be inspired by the New Zealand atrocity.
In a bid to address the online facilitation and propagation of extremist and terrorist activity, the New Zealand and French governments partnered on The Christchurch Call to Action Summit in Paris, nearly two years ago on 15 May 2019. The Call to Action “outlines collective, voluntary commitments from Governments and online service providers intended to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online and to prevent the abuse of the internet as occurred in and after the Christchurch attacks,” according to its website. “The events of Christchurch highlighted once again the urgent need for action and enhanced cooperation among the wide range of actors with influence over this issue, including governments, civil society, and online service providers, such as social media companies, to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.”
While the New Zealand and French governments initiated the Call to Action, 18 additional governments joined at its announcement in May 2019, and 33 more joined at the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2019. Private companies including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft and Google have indicated their official support as well.
“The Christchurch call was an attempt to bring tech companies and countries together to commit to a variety of approaches with respect to dealing with terrorist content online,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor and researcher on extremism at Canada’s Queens University. “This meant that they would all commit to ensuring that terrorist groups don’t exploit platforms for their own ends, prevent the dissemination of terrorist content, and also work with civil society groups to prevent violent extremism. The US under Trump didn’t sign and made the argument that they were taking a free speech approach, that sunlight was the best disinfectant, and that they were putting their focus on counter-narratives. It came as a surprise to many of us who study this stuff, because it was kind of a no-brainer to sign, and was only really encouraging an industry-wide set of good practices.”
The Biden administration previously signaled its support for the Call to Action. The State Department released a statement in March on the second anniversary of the mosque attacks in New Zealand that indicated the United States “supports the intent of the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorism and Violent Extremist Content Online,” and said that “The United States encourages technology companies to enforce their terms of service and community standards to prevent terrorists from using their platforms to incite violence.” Then President-elect Biden praised New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern following a call during the transition period, including for her leadership after the mosque attacks.
Today’s announcement emphasizes that “the United States will not take steps that would violate the freedoms of speech and association protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nor violate people’s reasonable expectations of privacy,” but that the US “will continue to collaborate with other governments and online service providers on a voluntary basis to support their efforts to counter terrorist content on the Internet.”
“Violent extremism online is a threat that goes beyond any single country or platform, and working with allies and partners is the only way to begin to build resilience against it,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, which studies online extremism and disinformation. “The Christchurch Call is designed to do just that, and the United States joining it is a significant step forward.”
This post will be updated.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.