Democracy, disinformation and kindness
The PM's speech in full - Harvard University Commencement Speech - Democracy, disinformation and kindness
E oku manukura, nga pou haemata o te ngahere.
Te Piko o Te Mahuri, tera te tipu o te rakau.
E tipu, e rea, ka puta, ka ora.
Tena koutou katoa.
Governing Boards and deans,
And most importantly, graduates.
In Te Reo Māori, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, I paid tribute to all of the esteemed guests who stand here in this great forest of knowledge. It is a privilege to be here, and I thank you for the honour.
There are some 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.
But then there are some moments that serve to remind you, that despite distance, despite vastly different histories and experiences, there are many things that connect us.
In June 1989 the Prime Minister of Pakistan stood on this spot and delivered the commencement address: titled “Democratic nations must unite.”
She spoke about her journey, the importance of citizenry, representative government, human rights, and democracy.I met Benazir Bhutto in Geneva in June of 2007. We both attended a conference that drew together progressive parties from around the world. Just seven months later she was assassinated.
There will be opinions and differing perspectives written about all of us as political leaders. Two things that history will not contest about Benazir Bhutto. She was the first Muslim female Prime Minister elected in an Islamic country, when a woman in power was a rare thing. She was also the first to give birth in office.
The second and only other leader to have given birth in office almost 30 years later, was me.
My daughter, Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, was born on the 21st of June 2018.
Benazir Bhutto’s birthday.
The path she carved as a woman feels as relevant today as it was decades ago, and so too is the message she shared here. In this place.
She said part way through her speech in 1989 the following:
“We must realise that democracy… can be fragile.”
I read those words as I sat in my office in Wellington, New Zealand. A world away from Pakistan. And while the reasons that gave rise for her words then were vastly different, they still ring true.
Democracy can be fragile.
This imperfect but precious way that we organise ourselves, that has been created to give equal voice to the weak and to the strong, that is designed to help drive consensus – it is fragile.
For years it feels as though we have assumed that the fragility of democracy was determined by duration. That somehow the strength of your democracy was like a marriage – the longer you’d been in it, the more likely it was to stick.
But that takes so much for granted.
It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government – and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.
It ignores that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue, and that even the oldest regimes can seek to control these forums, and the youngest can seek to liberate them.
It ignores what happens, when regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested – when facts are turned into fiction, and fiction turned into fact, you stop debating ideas and you start debating conspiracy.
It ignores the reality of what we are now being confronted by every single day.
Where I come from, we have a parliamentary representative democracy. Without giving you a litany of fun facts on New Zealand you’re unlikely to need again – here’s the brief version.
We have a Mixed Member Proportional system, which essentially means every vote counts, and it’s ensured our parliament better reflects our communities. 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.
In the past ten years we have passed laws that include everything from the introduction of gay marriage and the banning of conversion therapy, right through to embedding a 1.5 degree climate change target into law, banning military style semi-automatics and assault rifles, and the decriminalisation of abortion.
These are significant issues, and they have not been without debate and difference. But they are all examples of where we have navigated times of deep change, without, for the most part, leaving deep rifts.
But we have also seen the opposite. Whether it’s democratic elections that erupt into violence, or the COVID crisis exposing mistrust of experts, institutions and governments – western democracies are seeing it and experiencing examples and New Zealand is no different.
Now I will admit to 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.
If we don’t find once again our ability to argue our corners, yes with the passion and fire that conviction brings, but without the vitriol, hate and violence.
If we don’t find a way to ensure difference, that space where perspectives, experiences and debate give rise to understanding and compromise, doesn’t instead become division – the place of entrenchment, where dialogue departs, solutions shatter, and a crevice between us becomes so deep that no one dares cross to the other side.
We are at a precipice, and rather than ask what caused it, today I want to talk about how we address it.
Now I am not an academic. I acknowledge, the robes on this occasion aren’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.
But in that small rural town of 5000 people where I spent most of my formative years and will forever love for what it gave me, I lived in that important space that sits between difference and division.
I was raised a Mormon in a town where the dominant religions were Catholic, Anglican and Rugby. I was a woman interested in politics, left wing politics, in a region that had never in its entire democratic history, elected anyone other than a conservative candidate.
These differences were a part of my identity, but never a source of isolation.
But I am old. And unquestionably, things have changed.
In fact, 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. After he had shut the office for the day, we would get the key and log onto his massive desktop computers, with screens so wide that the desks were tiered to fit the whole thing in.
It was the 1990s. The interface and even what you used the internet for in those days was different. For a time it was almost as if the directory for this vast landscape didn’t exist. It was a modern ham radio. You would dial in, and talk to someone. Anyone. It was the spontaneity of connection that in some ways mirrored real life.
But as the opportunities to connect expanded, humans did what we have always done. We organised ourselves.
Social media platforms were born offering the promise of connection and reconnection. We logged on in our billions, forming tribes and sub tribes. We published our thoughts, feelings and ideas freely. We found a place to share information, facts, fiction dressed up as facts, memes, and more cat videos than you ever thought possible.
We found a place to experience new ways of thinking and to celebrate our difference.
But increasingly, we use it to do neither of those things.
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.”
As humans, we are naturally predisposed to reinforce our own views, to gather with people like us and avoid the dreaded sense of cognitive dissonance. We seek validation, confirmation, reinforcement. And increasingly with the help of algorithms, what we seek, we are served, sometimes before we even know we’re looking.
Now I am not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad. It’s a tool. And as with anything, it’s the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matters.
But social media matters a lot. And perhaps, much more than we thought.
On the 15th of March 2019, 51 people were killed in a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The entire brutal act was live-streamed on social media. The royal commission that followed found that the terrorist responsible was radicalised online.
In the aftermath of New Zealand’s experience, we felt a sense of responsibility. We knew we needed significant gun reform, and so that is what we did. But we also knew that if we wanted genuine solutions to the issue of violent extremism online, it would take government, civil society and the tech companies themselves to change the landscape. The result was the Christchurch Call to Action.
And while much has changed as a result, important things haven’t.
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. That algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us – what we see and where we are directed – and that at best this means the user experience is personalised and at worst it means it can be radicalised.
It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment.
We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. And we have every reason to do it.
Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms – because the time has come.
But tech companies, they are only part of the answer.
What we do as individuals in these spaces matters too. Our willingness to recognise our own preconceived ideas. The level of critique we apply to what we engage with. And how we uphold our basic sense of humanity when interacting with others.
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.
Keyboard warrior or not though, it’s still something that has been written by a human, and it’s something that has been read by one too.
I ‘do’ my own social media. I always have. After all, it has been described as the new ‘town square’. But we all know that it’s more than just news and information being shared these days.
Recently I had the privilege of joining ex German Chancellor, Angela Merkel on a panel. I have long been in awe of her leadership, not least for her endurance. She was in power for 16 years. I once asked her how she managed it, her response was “things have changed a lot.” In the panel discussion, she reflected on some of that change, by commenting that: “In the old days we had certain events that happened within our societies, and television reported it, and the next day everyone talked about it.”
Today, even that simple act has changed.
What we consider to be mainstream media outlets have proliferated but ownership structures have not.
Mainstream media have layers of accountabilities and journalistic expectations that others, who also present information to us, don’t.
There is competition for advertising revenue with subscription services and paywalls, all to aid in the survival of the fittest – with fittest now defined by how easy it is to monetise your content.
And in amongst all of that, lies the fact that we’re not just talking about how we access information to inform debate, but whether you can call it information at all.
There are those far more learned than I who will argue where the source of the scourge of disinformation lies.
Within your own campus, you have those who will argue that the current problems of disinformation are not the result of algorithms or trolls, but of “asymmetric media structures decades in the making.”
I am not here to argue either way. Because at its heart, what we are in the middle of isn’t really new.
Thomas Rid argues that the modern era of disinformation began in the early 1920s “during the Great Depression, in an era of journalism transformed by radio, newly cut throat and fast paced” and that what has followed since has come in waves, including in mid-2010, “with disinformation reborn and reshaped by new technologies and internet culture.”
Others point to the acceleration of the information and disinformation flow that comes with each new technology that enables mass duplication and distribution – from photocopiers to cassette tapes. The only thing that has changed perhaps, is speed.
But as Rid concludes, either way, “the stakes are enormous – for disinformation corrodes the foundation of liberal democracy, our ability to assess facts on their merits, and to self-correct accordingly.”
I accept the picture I am painting may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But I am an optimist at heart. And while we cannot change everything about the environment we are in – we can change ourselves.
To build greater strength and resilience, in spite of the headwinds around us.
And I see examples of that every day.
Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson were two young students from a public school in New Zealand called Otorohanga College. They couldn’t understand why every young New Zealander didn’t learn at school about New Zealand history including the New Zealand Wars, the conflict between British and colonial troops and Māori in the 19th century.
These two students pushed for change, presenting a petition to parliament. And they succeeded. This year, for the first time, our young people are universally learning about their past, their culture, and their history.
But what is important here is not just what our young people learn, but how.
In a disinformation age, we need to learn to analyse and critique information. That doesn’t mean teaching ‘mistrust’, but rather as my old history teacher, Mr Fountain extolled: “to understand the limitations of a single piece of information, and that there is always a range of perspectives on events and decisions.”
Our history shows us the importance of this. But so too does our present.
You are, and will always be surrounded by bias. You will continue to be exposed to disinformation. And overtime, the ‘noise’ you are surrounded by will probably only get worse.
And perhaps that is why, when your own constitution was adopted, Benjamin Franklin was asked what had been created and replied “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If YOU can keep it.
Yes, diversity of voice in mainstream media matters. The responsibility of social media matters. Teaching our kids to deal with disinformation and the role we play as leaders all matters.
But so do you.
How you choose to engage with information, deal with conflict, or confront debate, how you choose to address being baited, or hated – it all matters.
In the overwhelming challenges that lay in front of us, in our constant efforts to reach into the systems, the structures, the power, don’t overlook the impact of simple steps that are right in front of you.
The impact that we each have as individuals.
To make a choice to treat difference with empathy and kindness.
Those values that exist in the space between difference and division. The very things we teach our children, but then view as weakness in our leaders.
The issues we navigate as a society will only intensify. The disinformation will only increase. The pull into the comfort of our tribes will be magnified. But we have it within us to ensure that this doesn’t mean we fracture.
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.
After all, there are some things in life that make the world feel small and connected, let kindness be one of them.