The Prime Minister has used the Harvard University stage and an audience of more than 30,000 people to call out “keyboard warriors” and the social media companies that enable them.
“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,’’ Ardern told the sprawled crowd of students, professors, family, and friends seated and standing in the outdoor Harvard auditorium.
While the experience for those using social media can be “personalised, at worst it means it can be radicalised’’, Ardern said.
“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,’’ Ardern said.
Those comments came on the back of “some trepidation entering a discussion on how we strengthen our democracies when this issue is so easily and wrongly distorted into being opposed to free 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 said.
Shortly before speaking, Ardern was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University – her citation from the President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, began with her having worked at the Golden Kiwi fish and chip shop as a teenager.
Bacow acknowledged her early entry into political life, joining the Labour Party at 17 and going on to work for former Prime Minister Helen Clark and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
After returning to New Zealand and unsuccessfully auditioning for a role in The Lord of the Rings, she became an MP, Bacow said.
Ardern’s work on gender equality, climate change and child poverty reduction were acknowledged, and she was described as having “agility, compassion, and strength’’.
Dressed in a kakahu (Māori cloak) and graduation robe, Ardern acknowledged during her address that her wardrobe wasn’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 told the audience.
That was an opportunity to acknowledge her Mormon upbringing and how much things have changed since she was a child.
“Mine is the generation that sat on the cusp of the internet age. I remember the first person in my school who had access to the internet. Her name was Fiona Lindsay, and her father was the local accountant.’’
While Ardern said the internet began as a place of connection and community, “a place to experience new ways of thinking and to celebrate our difference’’, increasingly it was being used to do neither.
“I doubt anyone has ever created a group titled ‘political views I disagree with but choose to enter into respectful dialogue with to better understand alternative perspectives’,’’ she joked.
Social media is used for all sorts of intent and Ardern used her speech to explain the radicalisation it can produce, as it did for the Christchurch terrorist who live-streamed on social media the “entire brutal act’’.
Despite the renewed conversation around gun reform in the United States after the Texas massacre at an elementary school this week, New Zealand’s ban of semi-automatic military-style weapons only got a brief mention in a very long speech – but it received a standing ovation on delivery.
Instead, Ardern pointed to New Zealand’s Christchurch Call work, which is designed to try to change the online landscape.
Ardern painted a picture of where she came from and the type of Parliament that exists there as she described global democracy as being “fragile’’.
“Where I come from, we have a parliamentary representative democracy.”
“Almost 50 percent of our parliament are women, 20 percent are Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and our Deputy Prime Minister is a proud gay man and sits amongst several other rainbow parliamentarians,’’ she said.
Her speech, which she first started writing about three weeks ago, began with her reflecting on the “moments in life that make the world feel small and connected’’.
“This is not one of them.
“I am used to walking into a room in New Zealand and knowing at least someone. It is one of the beautiful and comforting aspects of living in a small country.
“And while this moment feels incredibly daunting to me right now, I do take comfort knowing there are around 30 New Zealanders studying here, and statistically at least one of them will be my cousin,’’ she said to much laughter.
Ardern also spoke of Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who delivered a speech at the same ceremony from the same stage in 1989.
The pair met in 2007 and just seven months later Bhutto, the first Muslim female Prime Minister elected in an Islamic country and the first to give birth in office, was assassinated.
Thirty years later, Ardern was the second and only other leader to give birth in office.
Ardern looped back to the world feeling small, but finding ways to stay connected, as she concluded her speech.
“We are the richer for our difference, and poorer for our division.
“Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy – let us reclaim the space in between,’’ she said.
“After all, there are some things in life that make the world feel small and connected, let kindness be one of them.’’
After the formal ceremony, Ardern met with Kiwi students studying at Harvard, before boarding a flight to San Francisco.