21 Sep 2022

PM Jacinda Ardern announces initiative to research social media algorithms

11:24 am on 21 September 2022
Jacinda Ardern at the UN in New York on 20 September 2022.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media in New York where she is attending the UN General Assembly. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced an initiative to research social media algorithms, but does not yet appear to have buy-in from some key tech players.

Ardern made the announcement in New York after co-hosting a summit with French president Emmanuel Macron.

Algorithms used by social media companies to drive traffic and make money have long been shrouded secrecy. Critics argue they can radicalise people by pushing them into shadowy corners of the internet.

The initiative is backed by New Zealand, the United States, Twitter and Microsoft, but is notably missing the giants Facebook and Google.

The partners will build and test a set of privacy enhancing technologies. Once tested, replicated, and validated, the technologies could then be used to build infrastructure to support independent study of impacts of algorithms.

They will work on the initiative with open-source non-profit organisation OpenMined.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly on 20 September, 2022, in New York City.

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks to the UN General Assembly. Macron and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have co-hosted a summit in New York. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

The software being developed would allow researchers to analyse and gain insight from datasets on a variety of different social media and other platforms without being able to directly view or access that data - providing privacy for the platforms' users.

It means research about algorithms - which currently is typically limited to looking at data from one or two platforms - would now be able to examine and compare data across several companies without risking users' privacy.

The technologies would be made available to the wider Christchurch Call network, if successful.

New Zealand and Microsoft are funding the initiative. Microsoft will also assist with testing the tool and Twitter will support its development.

Development of the initiative is expected to take place over a nine-month period with a total cost of approximately US$1.5 million.

Ardern said a better understanding of algorithms was needed.

"Companies, governments, civil society, we will all benefit from this initiative. It will help us create the free, open and secure internet we are all driving for."

Twitter legal, policy and trust lead Vijaya Gadde said: "Our work with the New Zealand government and Microsoft to support the development of innovative technology by OpenMined is a key building block to significantly expand the ability of researchers to understand the role of algorithms in content discovery and amplification while protecting the privacy of people's data.

"There is significant potential to provide a far more robust evidence base for a policy debate of critical importance to the future of online services."

InternetNZ - the designated manager for the .nz country domain - said tech companies had a lot more to do to implement the the Christchurch Call's commitments and help communities have a stronger voice in how that happened.

InternetNZ is also a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network.

In a statement, interim chief executive Andrew Cushen said there was "great potential" for change with the Christchurch Call, but tech companies needed to provide more insight into how their algorithms worked "and what role they play in driving Internet users towards extremist content and radicalisation".

"If we can see true collaboration between tech companies, governments, civil society, academia and most importantly affected communities of online harm, we could get closer to eliminating the spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online."

He hoped this would also provide an opportunity to review laws and processes around the Internet within the country.

"We hope that the government's review of the content regulatory system will help to find a new approach to content regulation that minimises the risk of harms caused by online content including online abuse and misinformation.

"We desperately need better systems to address these important issues."