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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Jacinda Ardern, former New Zealand Prime Minister (file photo)
Dublin visit

Jacinda Ardern on death threats, climate change and why social media is like alcohol

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand was speaking at a conference in Dublin today.

JACINDA ARDERN, THE former Prime Minister of New Zealand, has told a Dublin conference that more needs to be done to combat extremist content online.

One of the most significant events that occurred during her premiership was a terrorist attack in 2019 in which a white supremacist gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.

The gunman livestreamed the first 17 minutes of the attack on Facebook, before the broadcast was taken down.

In the weeks after the tragedy, Ardern’s government brought in stricter gun controls and proposed tighter regulations for social media content.

Two months after the attack, Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched the Christchurch Call.

The charter outlines collective, voluntary commitments from governments and online service providers intended to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online.

More than 50 countries, including Ireland, and several tech companies, including Facebook’s parent company Meta, have signed up to the agreement.

Ardern unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in January, saying she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do the job justice.

In April, she became Special Envoy for the Christchurch Call – an unpaid role that aims to get more countries and companies on board. She is also undertaking two fellowships at Harvard University, one of which is focused on combatting online extremism.

‘Weaponising social media’ 

Speaking at a conference in Dublin today, Ardern said the Christchurch attack “was one of the first times we’ve seen online platforms like [Facebook] weaponised in that kind of way”.

She said the idea that someone “would livestream an attack of this nature with the intent of trying to create additional [attacks]” gave her and her colleagues “the motivation to try and do something about that”.

Ardern said officials from Facebook sought to meet her and other government officials shortly after the attack happened, but she decided to bide her time.

“I remember in that first week Facebook in particular reaching out to meet with us, and [me] saying to the team ‘let’s hold off’ until we had our ‘ask’ because I knew for a brief moment, just briefly, as the leader of an entire country, I had more power than a social media platform, but we knew that would diminish.

“We came up with these 25 commitments that we wanted government and tech companies to sign up to, and not just about how do we better manage livestreaming but how do we deal with radicalisation online.”

Ardern said she doesn’t “for a moment” believe that social media is “the beginning and therefore the end” of forming people’s beliefs, but it can play a large role.

Social media is a little bit like alcohol, you know, it doesn’t create your personality but it can certainly enhance the worst elements of it.

Ardern said her drive to take action on the spread of extremist content online wasn’t particularly motivated by death threats aimed at her during her time in office.

“I don’t recall drawing a connection [to that] at all. For me it was very distinctly, ‘What do we do about those communities who are most often facing an unsafe environment online?’ and I didn’t really put myself in the picture at that time.”

Ardern said people in political office are often protected by those around them when it comes to issues like death threats, recalling: “It certainly wasn’t the case that I’d get a daily report of who had threatened to kill me that day.”

Prior to one particular press conference, she noted that someone on her media team advised her she may be asked about death threats as the police had confirmed they had dealt with dozens of threats against her.

“I [did] a press conference most days and [I remember] someone in my media team coming in and running through the issues of that day. ‘Oh, by the way, they might ask you [about this] – 50 people have been caught for threatening to kill you this year’. And that was basically the way that I would find out about it.”

A new report released today shed light on how misinformation about Covid-19, Russia and climate change – as well as hate material targeting migrants and the LGBTQ+ community – is delivered to Irish social media users.

Climate change

Ardern was speaking during an interview with journalist and author Dearbhail McDonald at the AIB Sustainability Conference in Dublin city today.

Thousands of people, including many banking and business leaders, attended the conference at the Royal Convention Centre.

NO FEE AIB SUSTAINABILITY CONF JB9 JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, with Colin Hunt, CEO of AIB PLC, and Helen Normoyle, Non-Executive Director and Sustainable Business Advisory Committee, AIB. JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY

When asked about climate change, Ardern said it is “one of the best examples” of an issue where “we should try and take the politics out of it”.

We need more than decisions that exist for one political cycle. We need decisions for the next 30 to 50 years.

“And we need, for the sake of certainty for the private sector in particular, we do need that level of certainty so that they are making those long-term investment decisions knowing that politicians are going to stick to the agenda.”

While she was in office, New Zealand passed the Zero Carbon Act which means the country must reach net-zero by 2050 for greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, but not methane.

Ardern said cross-party support was largely achieved when it came to this piece of legislation, but banning offshore oil and gas exploration was more controversial.

Her Labour Party government banned the granting of new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration in 2018. However, permits granted before the ban are still happening.

“There are some areas where we didn’t go across the political divide to get agreement because we knew we wouldn’t.

“Things like the ban on oil and gas exploration offshore, that was not something we knew we would get cross-party support for.”

Ardern said it made “zero sense” to sign new exploration permits as it meant “locking” the country into deals for the next 30 years.

“So that’s why, quite early on, we came up with that ban. We honoured the existing permits though because we wanted to be a place where we were acting on our contractual obligations.”

Ireland and New Zealand learning from each other 

Ardern noted that, like Ireland, agriculture is a massive industry in New Zealand, and the sector must play a role in combating climate change.

Nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, mainly methane. The agriculture sector in Ireland was responsible for 38.4% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2022, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Like Ireland, agricultural emissions are huge for us, larger than for Ireland. I think you’re sitting at about 30%, we’re closer to 50%,” Ardern said, adding: “There are both some challenges and some opportunities that come with it.”

She acknowledged the issue is “very emotive” and said governments need to engage with farmers to reduce emissions.

Farmers in New Zealand have until the end of 2025 before they have to pay for methane produced by sheep and cattle, a deadline that was extended in August.

“We are on track – unless the new government changes that – to be the first country in the world to price agricultural emissions,” Arden said.

After an election in New Zealand last month, talks are ongoing to form a coalition government led by the centre-right National Party which is opposed to the agricultural emissions policy.

Ardern noted that New Zealand is also on track to eradicate Mycoplasma Bovis (M Bovis) disease which can cause tuberculosis in humans. She said these plans are an example of a government working the farming community to achieve a long-term goal.

She said she is regularly asked about dealing with the Christchurch attack, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Whakaari volcanic eruption, but people rarely talk about the M Bovis outbreak during her time in government.

“I learned a lesson quite early on in my time in office, in 2017. They always leave this off the list [of crises I had to contend with] but – other than the volcanic eruption, the terror attack and the pandemic – we also had a major biosecurity incursion when Mycoplasma Bovis entered into New Zealand.

“So I’m five minutes in the job when the Ministry for Primary Industries comes and says, ‘Prime Minister, you’ve got a decision to make, we either adapt and wipe over a billion dollars out of our economy through loss of productivity over the next 10 years or we try and eliminate M Bovis’.

“I said, ‘Okay, tell me about those countries who have eliminated [it] and they said, ‘Yeah, no one has done that’.

But we had talked to Ireland and the officials there who most recently had to deal with an outbreak of M Bovis, they told us, ‘If you can get rid of it, try’, and that advice had an influence on me.

“So we brought in our farming community, and we sat down with them, shared all of the evidence and advice we had and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”

Dealing with the outbreak would mean killing many herds of animals and Arden said she could not make such a decision without input from farmers.

“I knew that wasn’t a decision I could take unilaterally, so we made that decision together. Now we are on track, five years in, to eradicate M Bovis out of New Zealand.”

More than 175,000 cattle have been culled in New Zealand as part of the programme, with over $250 million (about €138 million) in compensation paid to affected farmers to date.

Contains reporting from Press Association