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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has delivered the highly regarded Harvard Commencement address, calling out social media as a threat to modern day democracy.

She was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the university.

The Commencement is steeped in history with Ardern’s predecessors including Winston Churchill, JFK, Angela Merkel — and topically for today’s speech — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Capping off her day, Ardern confirmed to media afterwards that she would meet US President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday (Wednesday NZ time).

She invoked the memory of the late Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim country, and to give birth while in office with Ardern being the second.

Seven months after the two women met Bhutto was assassinated, Ardern said.

‘Path carved still relevant’
“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.

“She said part way through her speech in 1989 the following: ‘We must realise that democracy… can be fragile’.

“… while the reasons that gave rise for her words then were vastly different, they still ring true. Democracy can be fragile.”

Ardern told her audience of thousands that because of the speed of social media, disinformation is creating an ever increasing risk.

Watch the address

The Harvard Commencement address.    Video: RNZ News

“Social media platforms were born offering the promise of connection and reconnection. We logged on in our billions, forming tribes and subtribes.”

While it started as a place to experience “new ways of thinking and to celebrate our difference” it was now often used for neither of those things, she said.

However, just two days after the massacre in a school in Texas that saw 19 students and two teachers killed, the biggest response she got from the audience was when she referred to changes to firearms law.

Standing ovation over guns stance
She received a standing ovation when she said the government had succeeded in banning military style semi-automatics and assault rifles, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Outside Harvard University in Boston on the day that PM Jacinda Ardern received an honorary doctorate.
Outside Harvard University in Boston on the day that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received an honorary doctorate. Image: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Gazette

“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 livestreamed on social media. The royal commission that followed found that the terrorist responsible was radicalised online,” she said.

“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.”

She went on to say that if genuine solutions were to be found 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.”

Ardern called on social media companies to recognise their power and act on it and acknowledge the role they play in shaping online environments.

“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.

‘Pressing and urgent need’
“It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment.”

She said the forums were available for the tech companies to work alongside society and governments to find solutions to the issues.

She encouraged her audience to realise that their individual actions were also important.

“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’.”

While the prime minister’s US trip was planned around the Harvard Commencement, there is a trade and tourism focus, but also a chance to check in with some of the tech giants at whom she delivered her message, in particular around the Christchurch Call, during the next few days.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Harvard University
Jacinda Ardern has received an honorary law doctorate from Harvard University. Image: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Gazette
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