New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was blasted for comparing free speech online to "weapons of war" in a recent speech to the U.N. that critics called "authoritarian."
At the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, Ardern announced a new initiative "to help improve research and understanding of how a person’s online experiences are curated by automated processes," saying the work, done in partnership with companies and non-profits, will be "important in understanding more about mis- and disinformation online - A challenge that we must as leaders address."
The prime minister acknowledged that calling to regulate speech online in any way can seem problematic.
"As leaders, we are rightly concerned that even the most light-touch approaches to disinformation could be misinterpreted as being hostile to the values of free speech that we value so highly," she noted. "But while I cannot tell you today what the answer is to this challenge, I can say with complete certainty that we cannot ignore it. To do so poses an equal threat to the norms we all value."
Ardern then asked the audience how they could tackle various challenges if people are allowed to share opposing narratives online.
"After all, how do you successfully end a war if people are led to believe the reason for its existence is not only legal but noble? How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists? How do you ensure the human rights of others are upheld, when they are subjected to hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology?" she asked.
Ardern then suggested that online speech is a weapon often used by those with evil intent.
"The weapons may be different but the goals of those who perpetuate them is often the same. To cause chaos and reduce the ability of others to defend themselves. To disband communities. To collapse the collective strength of countries who work together," she claimed.
The prime minister urged action from the gathered audience of U.N. leaders.
"But we have an opportunity here to ensure that these particular weapons of war do not become an established part of warfare. In these times, I am acutely aware of how easy it is to feel disheartened. We are facing many battles on many fronts," she said. "But there is cause for optimism. Because for every new weapon we face, there is a new tool to overcome it. For every attempt to push the world into chaos, is a collective conviction to bring us back to order. We have the means; we just need the collective will."
Footage of the New Zealand prime minister's speech went viral on Wednesday, with many commentators condemning her remarks.
Independent journalist and The Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald called out Ardern on Twitter.
"This is the face of authoritarianism - even though it looks different than you were taught to expect. And it's the mindset of tyrants everywhere," Greenwald wrote. "This is someone so inebriated by her sense of righteousness and superiority that she views dissent as an evil too dangerous to allow."
Diesel Jack Media CEO and author Nick Palmisciano appeared to sarcastically skewer Ardern's ideas.
"Yes, please bring on the government disinformation service. What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like we ever see government officials abuse their power to their own ends," he wrote.
RedState deputy managing editor Brandon Morse warned, "This is the authoritarians admitting that your free speech is a threat to their rule."
American Greatness CEO Ned Ryun made a similar comment, "She’s an absolute authoritarian. In fact, evil."
Ardern has urged world leaders toward mass-censorship before.
New Zealand under Ardern responded to a terror attack at a mosque in Christchurch by declaring the Christchurch Call for Action. The initiative, signed by many countries, demanded Big Tech companies restrict extreme speech online in the name of preventing terrorism.
The Trump administration refused to sign the declaration at the time.