NZ Super escalates engagement with social media giants in open letter following Christchurch anniversary

$7.5trn investor coalition calls on Facebook, Google and Twitter to do more

New Zealand – at the head of a $7.5trn investor coalition – has today sent an open letter to the boards and executives of Facebook, Alphabet (Google’s owner) and Twitter calling them out for their “failure to properly respond” in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the anniversary of which passed this month.

The social media giants came under intense criticism from investors following Christchurch after it transpired that the attacks (15 March 2019) were live streamed and disseminated across their online platforms. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting – which saw 51 people murdered while worshipping in the city’s mosques – NZ Super’s CEO Matt Whineray expressed his outrage at both the attack and its transmission on social media.

The companies’ social licence to operate, he said at the time, had been severely damaged and called on them to take more responsibility for what is published on their platforms. 

The engagement initiative that grew from this has now reached more than 100 investors, including: Aviva Investors, Axa Investment Managers, Church of England, HSBC Global Asset Management and Swedish national pension buffer funds AP1, AP2, AP3 and AP4.

Katie Beith, Senior Investment Strategist, Responsible Investment at NZ$38bn (€20bn) sovereign wealth fund, said that the open letter is a means of “escalating our concerns”.

She said that while NZ Super has had “multiple interactions” with the tech giants since it first wrote to them in July following the Christchurch killings, “we are not certain that our voice has been heard at an appropriately senior level”.

Today’s letter acknowledges the “industry collaboration” that has taken place and the technical changes that have been introduced by the companies.

But it adds that the social media platforms “remain open to abuse” and points to the recent live streaming of the shootings in Thailand and Germany as examples.

In the letter, the investors express their dissatisfaction with the response from the companies to date and urges them “to do more to protect the public from similar events in the future”; this includes introducing: 

•    clear lines of governance and accountability for senior executives and Board members to ensure your platforms cannot be used to promote objectionable content; and

•   sufficient resources being dedicated to combating the livestreaming and spread of objectionable material across your platforms.

“Terrorists cannot be permitted to weaponise their actions via these companies’ platforms,”, Whineray said. 

“The failure to properly respond creates a significant business risk, beyond the harm caused to individuals and the community. As investors in these companies we remain open to continued engagement and our expectation is they will take responsibility and fully address this issue.”

Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet have all faced shareholder resolutions on their content management policies and practices in the last few years. 

New York State filed such a proposal at Twitter in both 2018 and 2019, which received investor support of 35% and 39%, respectively. 

Last month, Facebook’s CEO and Chair, Mark Zuckerberg’s wrote an op-ed in the FT, calling for greater regulation of the sector.

NZ Super’s Katie Beith told RI that the fund agrees with Zuckerberg but said that social media companies “need to step up” and collaborate to ensure that any new policies are “robust”, including providing greater transparency on how social media platforms are built and operated.

Facebook has avoided a shareholder proposal this proxy season calling on it to usher in a “new era of responsible operation” after the series of scandals have thrown it into the spotlight in recent years, including Christchurch.  

But another on separating Zuckerberg’s dual CEO and chair roles is still pending – though the dual class ownership structure of the company hampers its chance of success. 

NZ Super’s Beith said it will be “monitoring” annual meeting items that touch on its concerns at the companies.