In February this year, as I pored over the findings of our literature review and read through hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, I wrote that an adequate response to the problem of online hate, harassment and abuse was possible. It would require a recalibration of our policy approach, some international diplomacy and cooperation, and a sufficiently diverse group of decision-makers at the helm.

I believed then that all of that was within the capacity of the New Zealand government, and that there was “likely to be a leadership role for our country in global efforts to combat online abuse and, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee has put it, ‘fight for the web’.”

This belief has proven to be founded, although under circumstances none of us ever wanted to witness. As we completed this research, it was announced that New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would meet the French President, Emmanuel Macron in Paris to “bring together countries and tech companies in an attempt to stop social media being used to promote terrorism.” The meeting will invite world leaders and tech company CEOs to sign a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

In many ways, the devastation of the Christchurch mosque massacres has proven to be a turning point for New Zealand on this, and other policy issues. We now know that our small size and relative remoteness do not render us immune to the terrible harm that can be done by a person motivated by hatred, inspired by the internet and armed with a semi-automatic weapon.

In the wake of the March 15 attacks, in response not only to the unthinkably cruel and manipulative use the terrorist made of the internet in the course of the attack but also to the many ways in which online spaces have allowed hatred to grow and spread, many people - including our Prime Minister - called for greater accountability and care from the big digital platform companies, including Facebook and Google.

It’s a call some of us have been urging our government to make for some time now, and many feel it is long overdue. But here we are now, and this is a crucial moment in the history of the relationship between citizens, governments around the world and a handful of people who not only control a significant portion of the means by which we all communicate and the distribution of news and information to vast percentages of the world’s population, but also hold huge quantities of personal data about us all.

The question is no longer whether something needs to change. The question has become: what precisely needs to change? And even more importantly: what can be done? What evidence do we have as to the interventions and solutions that might mitigate against the biggest threats posed to our democracy by digital media, without losing the best of the opportunities that the internet offers? Those are the questions we set about answering with this research.

We are far from the first people to tackle these questions, as our literature review reveals. Researchers, academics, journalists and former employees of the big tech companies have been studying and writing about the impact of digital media on democracy in increasing numbers over recent years.

In his book, The People vs Tech Jamie Bartlett predicted: “In the coming few years, either tech will destroy democracy and the social order as we know it, or politics will stamp its authority over the digital world.” In his view, “technology is currently winning this battle, crushing a diminished and enfeebled opponent.”

Similarly, in How Democracy Ends, David Runciman assessed the comparative strengths of the tech giants versus governments, in a ‘Leviathan vs Leviathan’ showdown for the future of democracy. Although he gave governments more of a shot than Bartlett had, he concluded that while “Facebook will not take down the Leviathan in mortal combat … it could weaken the forces that keep modern democracy intact.”

But neither Runciman nor Bartlett, nor any of the analysis I’ve read over the past year, predicted the situation we are now in. None imagined a Prime Minister with a global reputation for compassion, armed with moral courage, clarity and the support of an outraged nation.

Has Jacinda Ardern become the global leader capable of taming the tech giants? There are good reasons to hope so, and even more reasons to ensure that this rare opportunity is neither wasted nor lost.

Need for a cohesive, evidence-based approach to policy

One of the challenges of rapidly developing policies on digital media in response to a situation like the Christchurch attacks is that this entire area of policy has been relatively neglected until recently. As one interviewee in this research said, we need a better system for making policy on these issues before we can be any kind of global leader. “Smart people just basically giving their opinion with no real information behind it,” won’t be good enough to develop the kind of solutions demanded by this particular set of problems and, they say “that’s how we’ve made our policy in this space, generally.”

Until very recently, there was no centralised or coordinated government process for developing policies and strategies in response to the challenges posed by digital media. Responsibility fell to a wide range of different agencies and teams, and policy development was consequently, inevitably, fragmented. In the process of doing this project, we found it difficult to establish who in government, if anyone, had a broad view over the full range of issues raised in our research. Recently, new efforts at coordination have begun to appear, with some degree of overarching responsibility, although not necessarily with the resources needed to develop policy across such a wide-ranging and rapidly changing area.

In the past, according to one interviewee, New Zealand has either simply adopted the policy approach taken in another jurisdiction “or we have a relatively flimsy policy discussion which isn’t founded in evidence.” In order to build our capacity as a country to understand and deal with these issues, they argue, we need more of an evidence base. “Before we can be leaders in any sense, we need to be equipped to have a solid base for developing policy ourselves.”

What our research shows is that it is critical that the Prime Minister and her advisors look beyond immediate concerns about extremism and content moderation, and ensure that our government’s efforts in this moment take into account the wider structural issues that created the conditions in which a live video of an act of such violence could be shared and viewed so widely.

Those wider structural issues include in particular the impact of platform monopolies, in which a handful of people have the power to determine the social interactions and access to information of millions of people, algorithmic opacity, in which algorithms have ever-increasing influence over what we hear and see without appropriate transparency or accountability, and the attention economy, which gives priority to content that grabs attention, without sufficient regard to potential harm.

Our intention is that this research will contribute to a wider consideration of the issues arising from digital media’s impact on democracy, and to the development of a body of evidence which supports this critical work.

Marianne Elliott

Lead Researcher, Digital Media and Democracy

Co-Director, The Workshop