New Zealand lost its Innocence on March 15, 2019

Suzanne Snively

The events of March 15, 2019 mark the beginning of the end of the age of innocence in New Zealand.

A remarkable feature of the New Zealand society before these tragic events was the trust we had that we were protected by a ring of confidence from the horrible things that happened in other countries.

Now aspects of our lives which we previously saw as benign, are suddenly popping up like sore teeth. And some are much in need of major root canal work.

Social Media not innocent

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now extremely clear that social media is more than an innocent channel for communication. The lack of transparency about both the formulas that are behind algorithms and the processes for managing their impact has been exposed by the Christchurch event.

Facebook, so much a part of the lives of many families and whanau, turns out to have hidden algorithms, some which direct information to us in a way that has the potential to do great harm.

While pretending to simplify our lives by connecting us with information about useful products and networks, it has turned out that social media can also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, marching into our homes spreading negativity that gobbles up our time and our joy.

After March 15, broadcast media and world leaders were quick to call out social media for questionable application of algorithms that spread misinformation and hate.

They joined other technologically-focused commentators who have been asking that there be greater accountability from social media for some time.

Facebook shirks responsibility

Yet, nearly three weeks after the tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, was told by Facebook that it hadn’t yet made changes to its live-streaming. It appears that its founder and management team were disingenuous in their earlier promises to do something in response to the tragedy.

Indeed, the same week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, wrote an opinion piece in  Washington Post, calling on governments and regulators, rather than private companies like Facebook, to be more active in policing the internet.

Zuckerberg suggested that privacy rules, such as the General Data Protection Regulation adopted by the EU, be adopted globally.

While the idea has merit in that it would apply to all media, it shows Zuckerberg’s well-known trait of overlooking the cost this would impose on the taxpayer.

This, from the major shareholder of one of the world’s wealthiest companies that, like many other tech companies, fails to pay its fair share of tax in many of the countries where it operates.

Sadly, it appears that Facebook’s initial intent to stop the live-streaming may have been in response to concerns that the volume of their users might decline if it didn’t act to stop it.

A cynic might say that, instead, Facebook has deliberately left the door open to live-streaming now that it knows more about the immensity of the power of dramatic events to spread content in a way that attracts even more users – providing the big data that populates its algorithms.

The ghastliness of the gunman “sharing” his actions in real time, as he gunned down people in cold blood, was deleted from Facebook too late to prevent the video from being saved and shared with millions of people around the world. In some countries, including Australia, the live-streaming was broadcast unedited on television.

Further experience gained from the tragedy is that many of the media where the shared content could be downloaded, appear to have limited, if any, mechanisms to contain it.

Bad News travels faster

The homily that good news travels fast appears to have been usurped by today’s social media algorithms which are designed in a way that bad news travels faster.

According to Stuff on April 4, 2019, Mr Edwards provided a written statement to Zuckerberg that he “was disappointed that Facebook had taken ‘no practical steps to improve the safety of its live-streaming service’ following March 15.”

The failure of social media is that rather than striving to contain the worldwide hatred echo chamber – they fuel it.

They provide a forum for publishing acts of violence and are complicit in it. This is conduct that heightens the pain of losing members of our community, generating a sense of grief and violation that will take time to repair.

Integrity and Transparency needed

Strong integrity and transparency are hallmarks of any ethical culture, including the cultures of social media companies. Indeed, it’s critical for any organisation’s credibility and its future.

Added to this, leadership and leadership behaviours are an essential part of strong integrity systems. Will Zuckerberg and his peers take on the mantle of leaders?

Taking an ‘it won’t happen here’ approach to maintaining transparency and trust isn’t enough. Vigilance is required to maintain a strong ethical culture.

The tragedy has taught us that strong integrity and transparency are attributes that are important parts of our daily lives just like brushing our teeth.

Some good attributes

New Zealand demonstrates the attributes of strong integrity systems

The leadership shown by our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the day of the tragedy and since has demonstrated the attributes of a strong integrity system that are part of our culture.

These attributes were displayed by the processes, procedures, accountability of our police, other public officials, religious leaders and people from throughout our country.

They have demonstrated that strong integrity is core to New Zealand’s culture.

Ours is a culture that benefits all of us through its rich diversity and aroha.

It will continue to enrich the lives of those who are still with us and give us an informed basis for defining transparency in a way that is more protective and preventative.

Paradoxically, the display of the positive features of our culture will be more effective than regulation at changing the behaviour of social media.

So, the many positive stories about how people care for each other is the type of good news that travels fast to crowd out bad news. Social media companies that ignore the power of a good reputation, based on transparency and accountability, do so at their peril.

Suzanne Snively is Chair of Transparency International New Zealand Inc based in Wellington. The above article appeared in the April 15, 2019 issue of Transparency Times.

 

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