Major global investors ‘dissatisfied’ with Big Tech’s response to Christchurch Call

A woman prepares to lay flowers outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2020. AP Photo/Mark Baker

A year after a gunman live-streamed the massacre of 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, a group of investors with $10.94 trillion in assets under management is pressing Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter to do more to cull the spread of hateful content online.  

Led by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZ Super), over 100 institutional investors published an open letter Thursday—released in advance exclusively to The Logic, the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal—that urges the social media heavyweights to invest more in technology that prevents violent and hateful content from being posted to their platforms and proliferating across the web. The group includes five Canadian signatories: BMO Global Asset Management, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), OPTrust, and boutique firms Hexavest and NEI Investments.

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Talking Point

A year after the Christchurch mosque shootings, a group of institutional investors has published an open letter urging Alphabet, Facebook and Twitter to invest more in technology that prevents violent and hateful content from being posted to their platforms and proliferating across the web. The group includes five Canadian signatories: BMO Global Asset Management, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, OPTrust and and boutique firms Hexavest and NEI Investments. The shareholders don’t currently plan on divesting from the firms, but said it’s a possibility if their engagement proves ineffective.

“To date, we have been dissatisfied with the response from your senior executives and Boards to us,” the letter reads. “The failure to respond to these actions creates a significant business risk, beyond the harm caused to the global community. You have a duty to address that.” 

The shootings on March 15, 2019—carried out at two mosques during Friday prayer—were livestreamed on Facebook and shared on the platform more than 4,000 times before the video was removed. Twenty-four hours after the attack, Facebook had removed another 1.5 million clips of the video. By then, the footage was easily searchable on Google and had proliferated across YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, among other channels.

In response, NZ Super assembled an investor conglomerate calling on the social media platforms to partner with law enforcement and security services to monitor extremist activity, and to make significant investments in tools that can automatically prevent “objectionable content” from being uploaded. They also urged social media companies to impose delays between when content is posted and when it is published to a platform, allowing the firms time to flag and block content that incites violence or hate.

Sources familiar with the initiative said the social media firms had engaged with the consortium early on and made changes over the course of the year to reduce the spread of violent content, in response to New Zealand’s Christchurch Call—but their efforts have fallen short. 

“As owners of your companies, we welcome the changes you’ve made to your platforms and the industry collaboration that has occurred via the Christchurch Call,” the letter reads. “Mass shootings have, however, continued to be disseminated across your platforms, including via livestream (for example, the recent mass shootings in Thailand and Germany). They remain open to abuse.”

Along with more investment in technology, the group wants the firms’ executives and board members to be more accountable for ensuring their platforms don’t promote “objectionable content like the livestreaming and dissemination of the Christchurch shootings,” according to the letter. They also want more transparency around the algorithms and other processes that could drive users toward and amplify violent extremist content on their platforms. 

Yann Langlais-Plante, a spokesperson for the Caisse, said the initiative fits with the fund’s general principles. “We have fully integrated ESG principles in our direct investment process,” he said. “We think this is a key issue that social media companies need to address in the ‘social’ and ‘governance’ aspects of their role as a corporate citizen.” Langlais-Plante said the fund, which holds more than $1.2 billion worth of shares in the three companies, isn’t planning to divest from the social media companies at this time. “If one company shelved its efforts or did not continue to go in the right direction on this important matter, we could review our position, but at this time they are mobilised.”

Conor Roberts, a spokesperson for NZ Super, said the group isn’t planning to divest its Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter shares. “We have more leverage to progress these issues by holding shares and actively engaging and voting than by divesting. We will continue to monitor progress and use our combined voice to challenge the companies to progress further,” he said. “As with any engagement, if it is ineffective, exclusion may be considered (but it’s not a given). Exclusion decisions rest with individuals funds.” 

The letter comes amid a wave of increased shareholder pressure on Big Tech firms to improve their social and governance policies. In February, two-fifths of Apple shareholders voted for a proposal to improve around how the company deals with Beijing and to uphold freedom of expression globally. While the proposal failed, it received far more support than similar ones put forward in 2016 and 2018, which both garnered less than 10 per cent approval. A group of Alphabet shareholders with at least US$2.4 trillion in assets filed a submission calling on the firm to form a committee to monitor human rights risks linked to its business operations and products. Shareholders will vote on the proposal at Alphabet’s annual meeting in June.

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“Working through an external engagement partner, we regularly connect with the technology firms we invest in to advocate for improved management of social issues,” said Claire Prashaw​, a spokesperson for OPTrust. “We also encourage these firms to adopt best practices on these issues through our proxy voting activities. For example, we recently supported a shareholder proposal asking Apple to report on their Freedom of Expression and Access to Information Policies.”

BMO Global Asset Management, Hexavest and NEI Investments did not respond to The Logic’s requests for comment before deadline.