New Zealand: We want Finland’s help to tackle online extremism after Christchurch attack

Speaking exclusively to News Now Finland, NZ's foreign minister laid out how governments could work with tech companies to crack down on violent extremist content online.

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NZ Foreign Minister Winston Peters (L) meets Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini in Helsinki, 26th April 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

The New Zealand government would welcome Finland’s support as it launches a new initiative to try and tackle extremist content online.

The initiative, to be promoted jointly with France at an upcoming conference, comes in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack on 15th March when a gunman killed 50 people during Friday prayers at mosques in the southern New Zealand city.

The gunman, who posted his white nationalist manifesto on the internet before the shooting spree began, also streamed the attack live on social media platforms.

Speaking in Helsinki before meeting caretaker foreign minister Timo Soini (Blue), New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters stressed that society needs to counter the root causes of extremism that lead to terrorist acts, by building inclusive and resilient societies that are able to resist violent extremist ideologies.

“Finland and the Nordic countries have an enormous amount in common with how New Zealanders think, how the New Zealand government thinks, the similar and shared values that we have” Peters told News Now Finland during his short visit on Friday.

Those common links, he said, mean that “we would like obviously the Finnish government and the Finnish people to join in this cause as well as every other country that we can responsibly get engaged”.

New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters in Helsinki, 26th April 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Getting social media companies involved 

The new effort from New Zealand and France – dubbed the ‘Christchurch Call’ – has a narrow focus just on terrorist and violent extremist online content. It doesn’t address the wider problems of hate speech or other divisive  content which in theory are already prohibited by social media platforms.

Minister Peters is adamant that any meaningful solution to the problem has to be a joint effort between tech companies and government. The New Zealanders say the tech industry is open to working more closely with government, but they’re also keenly aware of potential civil liberties issues.

“If we’re going to attend to this matter with plain speaking, it’s not social media, it’s utterly anti-social media. Again, this kind of behaviour in past times, without this new cyber technology, wouldn’t be permitted” says Peters.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re contesting the right of people to have alternative views or have alternative philosophies. But when they go way beyond that, to manifestations of pure deceit where the ends justify the means, that’s when society should say we’ve had enough of that” he adds, calling extremist online content a “malignancy”.

Flags of New Zealand and Finland on a table at lunch for foreign ministers, 26th April 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Kindred political spirits in Timo Soini 

The visit to Finland was part of a larger tour Winston Peters made of the Nordic region, with official meetings in Iceland, Denmark and Norway.

In Oslo he met New Zealanders impacted by the 2011 Oslo bombing and Utøya shooting massacre, which was also carried out by an extremist with a white nationalist agenda.

In Finland’s Timo Soini he likely found a kindred political spirit. The two men are in the twilight of their parliamentary careers, both veteran members of immigration-skeptical parties who campaigned in the past for tighter border control.

But like Timo Soini, periods in government seem to have given Winston Peters a more nuanced approach to his ‘New Zealand first’ ideology.

“There’s a world of difference between being a multicultural society an multiculturalism” says Peters.

“In my country there are many people who are utterly sympathetic to the multicultural setting, but who also believe that we’re all striving in New Zealand for a new culture called the emerging New Zealand of the future, to which we must all contribute, to which we must all give a little” he tells News Now Finland.

“We’re trying to build, as a new country, a great society into the future, and we welcome all of the cultural backgrounds of people who are immigrants to New Zealand. But it’s still the end product, of the New Zealand culture with many strands in its origin, that we’re trying to foster.”