Issue 25

The censors are coming

Delivered on 25 March 2019 by Justin Pyvis. About a 6 min read.

The mosque shootings that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March were an act of pure evil, rightfully condemned by just about everyone around the world save for a few lunatics on the fringe. Without in any way belittling the tragic loss of life, I want to quickly touch on one unintended consequence that has followed the tragedy: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's second youngest ever Prime Minister.

Ardern's response to the crisis has been hailed as exemplary by both sides of the political spectrum, and she has rocketed to international fame. I wouldn't normally have an issue with that (New Zealand's a very nice place, with relatively sensible politicians), but Ardern has decided that she will use her newfound fame to push for the censorship of social media. You see, the perpetrator of the Christchurch shooting live streamed the whole thing to Facebook via a camera attached to his helmet, and Facebook took a long time to notice (half an hour after a user brought it to the company’s attention).

Ardern rightly wasn't happy about that and being a politician, she wants to do what politicians always do when fear levels are running high.


Her logic is simple: a Bad Thing happened; people spread video of the Bad Thing via social media; therefore, social media needs to be controlled to stop any future Bad Things being spread. In Ardern's own words:

"We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility."

Just to be clear, social networks are not publishers, they're platforms. If an article is shared on Twitter, that doesn't suddenly make Twitter the article's publisher; it's simply one of many distribution platforms for that article.

But back to Ardern. Did Facebook want the shooting video on its website? Of course not. Should it have been faster at removing it? Absolutely. But its delay was due to a flawin its AI algorithms and manual reporting processes, not because it's "all profit, no responsibility". Blaming platforms because you don't like the content people distribute on them very quickly starts to resemble blaming books because you don't like the content printed in them. And we all know how that turns out.

To be fair, Ardern is not the first person to call for the censorship of social media. Two bastions of free speech acted against Facebook well before the shooting, with the social network banned entirely in China and Russia deciding last week to ban "fake news" and "insults". But the devil is in the detail:

"The new legislation allows the authorities to block websites or internet accounts that publish what they deem to be "fake news" and penalizing those who post material found to be insulting to state officials, state symbols, or Russian society."

A Russian tsar will determine what is "fake" or not. I'm not entirely sure what Ardern's plan for social media is but it's probably not dissimilar (it would be almost impossible to enforce without such a body). It's also unlikely to be New Zealand specific; Ardern has called for "a united front on a global issue":

"This is not just an issue for New Zealand, the fact that social media platforms have been used to spread violence (and) material that incites violence. All of us need to present a united front."

Right, that old chestnut. Politicians, much like water, will almost always follow the path of least resistance and social media was already firmly in their sights. In the words of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a good politician should "never let a serious crisis go to waste". Ardern is a good politician and she is capitalising on the fear and emotion invoked by this tragedy to push her agenda.

Just because Ardern behaved exactly as most people would want a leader to act following a similar tragedy doesn't suddenly make her policies wise choices. A "united front" against social media platforms won't get rid of the people and ideas Ardern rightfully condemns, it will just push them further into the deep corners of the web where those ideas will fester and grow unchallenged. Her government's decision to ban the shooter's manifesto tells you all you need to know about its views on the importance of free speech.

The problem with Ardern's proposal, and with censorship in general, is that once you start it's hard to stop. Social media might be the villain today, but tomorrow it'll be something else. Every action has unintended consequences, and those consequences tend to be more severe when governments are responding quickly to the public's fear.

Cooler heads may well prevail, but Ardern is on a bit of a role and many otherwise sensible people seem to have checked their brains at the door, so I'm not hopeful. I don't like the big social media platforms, but labelling them publishers and regulating them to the point that they become utilitised is not the correct response to this tragedy.

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Other bits of interest

Image of the week

A cloud of usernames and passwords that hackers are most likely to use to try to compromise an account. The larger the word, the more commonly it is attempted. If you use any of these - especially the passwords - you should stop. Your best bet is to use a passphrase rather than a password.

Issue 25: The censors are coming was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 25 March 2019. Join the conversation on the fediverse at