Executives from the New Zealand Superannuation Fund were among delegates at Wednesday's (April 15) meeting in Paris, convened by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and French president Emmanuel Macron to upscale the fight against the abuse of social media by extremists.
The sovereign wealth fund now has a group of 55 pension funds with over $3 trillion of assets under management supporting its own initiative to tackle social media extremism. But it is also lending support to the so-called 'Christchurch Call', which sets out voluntary commitments for governments, companies and wider society to work together to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.
The New Zealand and French leaders hosted the summit in Paris, with world leaders, technology companies and civil society, to promote the Christchurch Call.
In total, 17 countries have signed up to the Paris accord, including the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Japan, India, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Australia and Canada.
The US has not signed, citing concerns about freedom of speech. However, US-based technology firms including Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon, released a joint statement saying they would set out concrete steps that would address the abuse of technology to spread extremist content.
Following the Paris summit, the 17 countries and eight technology companies signed up have agreed to develop solutions to prevent the upload of content from violent extremists and increase transparency around the detection and removal of such content.
“Much of the wording and direction of this initiative is very aligned to our own investor initiative, to work with social media companies to improve their practices and strengthen controls over live streaming of objectionable content,” said Matt Whineray, chief executive of NZ Super.
“The [NZ Super] investor initiative supports the Christchurch Call and part of our engagement with social media companies will involve monitoring and ensuring accountability for the Christchurch Call commitments made,” he added.
In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack on two mosques on 15 March, New Zealand-based investors were joined by others from around the world to collectively engage with the social media companies Facebook, Google and Twitter. The objective has been to get the companies to strengthen controls that prevent the live streaming and distribution of objectionable content. The Christchurch attack had been live video-streamed as it took place.
“It is important there is a globally coordinated response to the attack, which is why it is positive to see governments and tech companies coming together to search for solutions,” said Whineray.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
While world leaders increasingly recognise a need to improve checks and balances on social media, the investment community has a key role to play in keeping the pressure on publicly-listed technology firms, said Whineray.
“Collective action from multiple investors has the best chance of success. As shareholders and investors, we will use our collective leverage to raise concerns with the companies’ board and management on these issues.”
One of the Australian asset owners backing the NZ Super campaign is Melbourne-based VicSuper. The fund's CIO Andrew Howard told AsianInvestor that as an investor, they want to see companies such as Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter operating successfully.
"In joining the investor initiative we seek to amplify the voice and influence of the lead New Zealand investors in calling on social media companies to ensure adequate safeguards are in place in relation to user-generated content," said Howard.
In practical terms, Howard said VicSuper will provide input into the collective engagement as requested. In addition, the fund expects its specialist engagement service providers and investment managers to engage in an open dialogue with social media companies on this issue.
Australian superannuation and corporate governance consultant Gordon Noble, of Melbourne-based FenElpi Partners, told AsianInvestor he felt the impetus to get behind the Christchurch Call “means there is a real capacity for investors to create change”.
“To integrate ESG (environmental, social and governance investment principles) well, asset owners need to be constantly scanning the horizon to understand how society is changing. A decade ago when ESG was first being introduced investors were struggling to understand the implications of the rise of social media, let alone understand the different ways that it could be used as a force for good and evil.”
Noble said he felt it was entirely consistent with pension funds’ fiduciary duties to engage around the way social media platforms manage the content that is being placed.
"The issue of impact relates to how quickly and with what force of commitment investors act. Investors when they act in unity have the capacity to create real change.”
NZ Super created its investor initiative in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch attacks and it continues to attract new pension fund and asset manager support from Australia, Japan and Europe.
Signatories so far include influential pension industry leaders such as the Swedish AP funds, six Australian super funds and seven UK pension funds:
Leaders Group (New Zealand Crown-owned investors)
New Zealand Super Fund
Accident Compensation Corporation
Government Superannuation Fund
National Provident Fund
Confirmed Participants – International
AMP Capital (New Zealand and international operations)
Axa Investment Management
BMO Global Asset Management
Brunel Pension Partnership
Church of England Pensions Board
Greater Manchester Pension Fund
Investec Asset Management
Local Authority Pension Fund Forum
Mercer Global (including New Zealand operations)
Merseyside Pension Fund
Nomura Asset Management
River and Mercantile
U Ethical Investors
West Yorkshire Pension Fund