Two years after a white supremacist in New Zealand livestreamed the killing of 51 Muslim worshippers on Facebook, French president Emmanuel Macron said the internet continues to be be used by terrorists as a weapon to propagate hate.
Mr Macron and other leaders from tech giants and governments around the world – including the US, for the first time – gathered virtually on Saturday to find better ways to stop extremist violence from spreading online, while also respecting freedom of expression.
It was part of a global effort started by Mr Macron and New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern after deadly attacks in their countries were streamed or shared on social networks.
The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year.
It involves some 50 nations plus tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and is named after the New Zealand city where the killings took place at two mosques.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a pre-recorded video that UK authorities had taken down more than 300,000 pieces of terrorist material from the internet over the past decade, which he described as a tsunami of hate.
“Terrorist content is like a metastasising tumour within the internet, or series of tumours,” Mr Johnson said.
“If we fail to excise it, it will inevitably spread into homes and high streets the world over.”
Since the Call’s launch, governments and tech companies have cooperated in some cases in identifying violent extremist content online.
Ms Ardern, however, said more tangible progress is needed to stop it from proliferating.
The meeting was aimed at revitalising coordination efforts, notably since US president Joe Biden entered office, and getting more tech companies involved.
Mr Macron and Ms Ardern welcomed the US decision as a potential catalyst for stronger action.
The French leader said the internet had continued to be used as a tool in recent attacks in the US, Vienna, Germany and elsewhere.
He said it cannot happen again, and that new European regulations against extremist content would help.
Ms Ardern said that two years after the Christchurch Call was launched, momentum was strong.
But she acknowledged the challenge in essentially playing “whack-a-mole” with different countries, internet platforms and algorithms that can foster extremist content
New Zealand’s leader said: “The existence of algorithms themselves is not necessarily the problem, it’s whether or not they are being ethically used.
“And so that is probably the biggest focus for the Call community over the next year.”
She said part of the solution involved better equipping a younger generation of internet users to have the skills to deal with radical content or disinformation when they encounter it online.
Although the US only officially joined the Christchurch Call this year, it had been consistently contributing to the effort, Ms Ardern said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Countering the use of the internet by terrorists and violent extremists to radicalize and recruit is a significant priority for the United States.”
She also stressed the importance of protecting freedom of expression and “reasonable expectations of privacy”.