Jacinda Ardern’s so-called ‘mega-Monday’ at the United Nations included a Trump thumbs-up and tweet combo – and more significantly, some added heft to the Christchurch Call. Sam Sachdeva reports from New York.

ANALYSIS: New Zealand loves to think of itself as a plucky underdog punching above its weight on the world stage, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first full day of engagements at the United Nations offered plenty of fodder on that front.

Ardern delivered not one but two speeches as part of the UN’s Climate Action Summit – although she was overshadowed by the fiery speech from Swedish climate activist and ostensible Nobel Peace Prize rival Greta Thunberg – while there was the much-hyped bilateral-cum-“pull-aside” with US President Donald Trump.

Trump’s ubiquitous grinning thumbs up in a formal photo with Ardern, coupled with an approving retweet of an article about the meeting, sent New Zealand Twitter into a frenzy.

But the more meaningful social media action happened later in the afternoon, with an update on the Christchurch Call to Action. The multinational and multilateral commitment to tackle violent extremism online was launched by New Zealand in the wake of the March 15 terror attack, which was live-streamed on Facebook and widely disseminated elsewhere.

What was announced at the UN dialogue seemed, if not a definitive solution to online extremism, certainly something more substantial than the “nebulous, feel-good thing” National leader Simon Bridges had derided in the lead-up to Ardern’s trip.

Another 31 countries have signed up to the agreement, meaning 48 overall are now involved.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), an industry-led organisation set up in mid-2017 by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, will be transformed into an independent organisation with an expanded mandate to cover violent extremism as well as acts of terror.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg praised Jacinda Ardern’s leadership in the wake of the March 15 terror attack – but stopped short of apologising for her company’s role in its spread. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

With dedicated technology, counterterrorism and operations teams led by an executive director, the organisation will broaden its work to include wider engagement across technology companies, support efforts to direct “positive alternatives” to terrorist and extremist messages, and commission more research on the causes of terrorism and how to best counter it.

Earlier in the year, GIFCT released a counter-extremist “toolkit” for civil society organisations, while expanding its shared database of “hashes” – often likened to digital fingerprints for visual content – to more easily identify and take down violent imagery or video.

But perhaps the most significant announcement from New York was the establishment of a new crisis response protocol – or as Ardern put it, “a shared set of expectations and understandings on who to contact and how to do it, should there be another attack like Christchurch”.

“I don’t want any other country to be placed in the situation New Zealand was in the minutes, hours and days after the attack in Christchurch, when we were left scrambling to respond to and remove live-streamed hate.”

The protocol will be tested during a Google-hosted exercise in New Zealand this December, but Microsoft president Brad Smith was in little doubt about its value.

“It’s a protocol that I think could have, would have, and should have made a difference if it had been in effect on the 15th of March, because it’s a protocol that prepares the government and industry to work together by having a network of identified people … it’s a protocol that enables companies to act faster, and it’s a protocol that leads to real reporting and transparency,” Smith said.

“I’ve seen incredible examples of the good technology can do in a crisis like a tsunami…or even in the small everyday moments like a birthday wish, but all of this is dependent on us being so vigilant to prevent the bad uses of that same technology.”

Facebook chief operating officer and current GIFCT chair Sheryl Sandberg endorsed the optimism at a press conference announcing the changes, where she also offered plaudits to Ardern for her role in the Christchurch Call.

“You took one of the worst tragedies a country or a leader could face, and you turned it into a determination to do better – not just for your own nation but for countries around the world.”

But while there were bouquets for the Prime Minister, Sandberg shied away from lobbing any damaging brickbats at her own company, twice sidestepping questions about whether Facebook should apologise for its role in the harm caused to those in Christchurch and around the world.

“I’ve been working in technology for almost 20 years and I’ve seen incredible examples of the good technology can do in a crisis like a tsunami, in moments of need like when someone faces illness, or even in the small everyday moments like a birthday wish, but all of this is dependent on us being so vigilant to prevent the bad uses of that same technology,” she said.

While the Christchurch Call update appeared to be well received, there are still some potential wrinkles.

With the core funding for the new and improved GIFCT coming from industry contributions, there is a question of how independent it can truly be. Both government officials and tech executives are confident there are sufficient safeguards in place, such as the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, which is made up of civil society representatives.

There is also the growing use of end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms, which cannot be monitored in the same way as Facebook.

Sandberg acknowledged the challenge in balancing consumer demand for such privacy mechanisms with the need to work with law enforcement, but said Facebook’s own mix of unencrypted and encrypted platforms allowed the company to identify distributors of extremist or terrorist content on the former and remove them from the latter.

Microsoft president Brad Smith says technology companies have moved farther and faster on tackling extremism in the last six months than at any point in the last decade. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But perhaps the most difficult obstacle is ensuring that the tech companies follow through on their word when there are few real levers governments can pull in areas change is needed the most – a fact Ardern herself acknowledged.

“For all of the areas where we’re going to see the greatest benefit, all the areas where we’re going to prevent the greatest amount of harm are in those preventative areas, and in those spaces it’s .. .almost nigh on possible to regulate.

“How do you regulate forced research on technology to remove things immediately, or even to direct individuals into different curated content to avoid them coming across or engaging in violent extremist content or even hateful content?”

Some are sceptical, but Microsoft’s Smith is confident that real action is already underway.

“We haven’t yet solved every problem that we need to solve, but I will say this: I believe that the tech sector has moved farther and faster in the six months and a week since this terrible tragedy and terrorist attack in Christchurch than it has in any other six-month period or any other year in the past decade.”

Ardern may feel she had moved farther and faster herself than at any point in her prime ministership, in what some wags dubbed her “mega-Monday” at the UN.

Her work is far from over, however. With a “primetime” speaking slot at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday evening US time (around lunchtime Wednesday back home) – immediately preceding Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – Ardern is almost certain to improve on the half-empty audience which greeted her debut speech late in Leader’s Week last year.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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