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Trump Is More Worried About "Free Speech" Than Combatting Online Extremism

Trump opted out of the "Christchurch Call to Action." He just doesn't seem that into tackling the threat of far-right extremism.

The Trump administration once again seems reluctant to tackle the threat of far-right extremism.

The administration on Wednesday opted out of an international pact to hold social media companies accountable for online extremism, citing concerns over “free speech.” In a statement, the White House said it supported the goals of the “Christchurch Call to Action” but was “not currently in a position to join the endorsement.” (Hours later, however, the White House escalated its own war with social media, rolling out a tool for people to report if they were “wrongly censored, banned or suspended” from platforms over political views.)


The U.S. decision not to endorse the Christchurch initiative — launched by New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern and backed by world leaders and social media giants — comes amid substantial other evidence that the Trump administration is not tackling the threat of far-right extremism. President Donald Trump said he doesn’t believe white nationalism is a growing problem, and his administration has slashed programs that were designed to combat far-right radicalization. He infamously asserted that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

The Christchurch Call to Action is named for the March attacks at two New Zealand mosques by a white nationalist who killed 50 people. Before the attacks, the alleged shooter shared his violent manifesto on 8chan, a site popular with racists and extremists. He also broadcast his deadly attack on Facebook Live for 17 minutes before the social media company removed it.

Counterterrorism experts concluded that the attack was further evidence that far-right extremism posed a global threat — and that the internet had played a vital role in extremists’ abilities to share propaganda, radicalize, and recruit around the world.

The campaign against online extremism was spearheaded by Prime Minister Ardern and French president Emmanuel Macron, and unveiled in Paris on Wednesday. It urges social media companies to do a better job policing their own sites for extremist activity — and outlines “collective, voluntary commitments” for governments to undertake.


More than a dozen countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, India, and Sweden signed onto the campaign. Tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft also signed on, pledging to change their terms of use to “expressly prohibit the distribution of terrorist and violent extremist content.”

Before the summit in Paris, Facebook released a statement announcing new rules for its live-streaming feature, saying that anyone sharing “violating content” would be temporarily blocked from using Facebook Live for a set period.

Governments participating in the effort committed to improving on five areas:

  • Investing in educational programs, including ones that promote awareness of different types of media and how they influence society.

  • Ensuring that laws regulating the production of extremist or terrorist propaganda are enforced “in a manner consistent with the rule of law and international human rights law, including freedom of expression.”

  • Encouraging media outlets to “apply ethical standards” when covering terrorist events online (for example, not sharing the New Zealand mosque shooting video).

  • Supporting programs that are dedicated to crafting “industry standards” in journalism, like journalism schools

  • Considering “appropriate action” against websites that share extremist content “consistent with a free, open and secure internet”

“We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” the White House said in a statement. “Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging.”

The Trump Administration has committed to previous international efforts to fight terrorism online. For example, the U.S. is a member of the Global Counterterrorism forum, and endorsed its 2017 “Zurich-London Recommendations on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism Online.”

Cover: President Donald Trump arrives to speak on immigration in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)