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The flood of disinformation that is spread and amplified on social media represents a threat to fragile democracies, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during the keynote speech at Harvard University's commencement on Thursday, exhorting graduates to do their part of fight it.
“In a disinformation age we need to learn how to analyze and critique information,” said Ardern, 41, who became New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in more than 150 years when she was first elected in 2017.
“You are and always will be surrounded by bias,” she said during Harvard's first in-person commencement exercises since 2019. “You will continue to be exposed to misinformation and over time the noise you are surrounded by will probably only get worse. And perhaps that is why when your own Constitution was adopted, Benjamin Franklin was asked what has been created and he replied, quote ‘A republic if you can keep it.’
“If YOU can keep it,” she added for emphasis.
The gunman who killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in 2019 was radicalized on online, and the attack was livestreamed on social media, she noted.
“The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognize their power and act on it,” she said. “That means upholding their own basic terms of service. That means recognizing the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments we’re in.”
She vowed to change New Zealand’s gun laws after the attacks, and less than a month later all but one of the country’s 120 lawmakers voted in favor of banning assault weapons.
Ardern has also drawn praise for her work to fight climate change, promote gender equity and contain the coronavirus. She became only the second world leader to give birth while in office, and became a role model for working mothers around the world.
She went on to win a second term in a landslide election in 2020.