Dangerous Words, Deadly Weapons

Commentary, 19 March 2019

By Scott Jerbi, Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, IHRB

Business Leadership Needed to Confront Growing Extremism

The horrific killing of at least 50 people in two New Zealand mosques is a tragic reminder of twin viruses attacking our societies - growing anti-immigrant, nationalist and racist rhetoric combined with largely unrestricted access in some countries to semi-automatic weapons. 

Stopping the spread of radical extremism and putting in place sensible gun laws are urgent tasks. Different countries understandably confront these challenges in different ways. But any response must recognise that negligent corporate practices have contributed significantly to the current situation and that business leaders should be part of the fightback. 

Negligent corporate practices have contributed significantly to the current situation and business leaders should be part of the fightback. 

A broad range of companies are linked to events like those last week in New Zealand - from gun manufacturers to retailers, advertising agencies, the financial industry and social media outlets, among others. These industries all have responsibilities and shouldn’t wait for governments before exercising due diligence and addressing adverse social impacts linked to their operations, products or relationships.

For gun manufacturers, the list of needed actions is long. For starters, safety advocates have long called for practical steps to reduce gun-related deaths including by building in or adding on safety features to child-proof guns and make them useless to those who are unauthorised to fire them. Activists have also urged gun makers to support more responsible distribution chains and in recent years have teamed up with investors to demand greater industry commitment to safety and transparency. The lack of constructive responses from major gun makers to such proposals is unacceptable.

Activists have urged gun makers to support more responsible distribution chains.

Companies who make weapons and those that market them must accept responsibility for the influence of their advertising campaigns. Just a day before the attacks in New Zealand, the state supreme court in the US state of Connecticut ruled that gun manufacturers can be sued for wrongful marketing claims under a state law on unfair trade practices. Those bringing the suit on behalf of families whose children were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre contend that weapons manufacturers are negligent by their use of marketing campaigns promoting military-style weapons, particularly to young men. As media reports have pointed out, the weapon used at Sandy Hook was advertised as “the ultimate combat weapons system” with the tag line “Consider your man card reissued”. This case is a potentially important legal development that if successful could force restrictions on gun advertising in the US with international implications as we've seen previously for tobacco and alcohol products.   

Banks and credit card providers also have roles to play in addressing gun violence. A 2018 New York Times report found that many individuals who carried out mass killings in the US purchased large numbers of high-powered weapons and ammunition with credit cards. The report notes that financial firms and credit card operators have so far resisted efforts to address this problem saying “it is not their responsibility to create systems to track gun purchases that would allow them to report suspicious patterns”. Some suggest major retail companies like Walmart may be the biggest obstacle to further action in this area as they would likely oppose steps by banks or credit card companies to limit the kinds of products that can be purchased. It should be noted that in 2015, Walmart ended sales of high-powered AR-15 style weapons and does not sell high-capacity ammunition magazines or similar accessories. The same can’t be said for many other online outlets and retailers in the US and elsewhere. 

Concerns continue to grow over the role of social media companies in providing massive platforms for extremist rhetoric to take root and spread.

But addressing the safety of and access to powerful weapons is only one part of this story. Concerns continue to grow over the role of social media companies in providing massive platforms for extremist rhetoric to take root and spread. Commentators have pointed out that the recent tragedy in New Zealand “felt like a first - an internet-native mass shooting… teased on Twitter, announced on the online message board 8chan and broadcast live on Facebook. The footage was then replayed endlessly on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms scrambled to take down the clips nearly as fast as new copies popped up to replace them.” 

There is growing evidence to suggest that firms like Google, as part of technical developments designed to expand user time on their sites, have ended up leading viewers to more extreme and inflammatory online content. As one expert puts it, “As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths” leading viewer sin many cases to extremist materials while the companies involved continue to “rack up the ad sales”.

While exposure to racist rhetoric and images won’t cause most people to embrace violence, for some individuals it tragically appears to be the case that a steady stream of such materials may contribute to tragic results. Following the attacks in New Zealand, commentators are asking what more should be done by these companies, with some suggesting measures such as requiring social media platforms to delay live broadcasts or streaming. They clearly must be more vigilant in efforts to counter the mainstreaming of extreme rhetoric their platforms are currently enabling.

We need to hear the combined voices of business leaders speaking up and challenging their peers.

The central question remains: What should we expect of business? The resurgence of extremism and related violence have been marginalised for too long. These issues cry out for more responsible leadership on the part of politicians and it is encouraging that New Zealand’s government is already taking action to put forward new gun laws in response to last week’s events. But we shouldn’t forget that the leaders of weapons manufacturers, media and technology firms, and many others must also step up.

We need to hear the combined voices of business leaders speaking up on and challenging their peers on these subjects just as they increasingly are on issues like tackling climate change and ensuring equality in the workplace and in wider society. In the wake of the New Zealand tragedy, some business leaders like Paul Polman have expressed their concern, but we should hear the same and more from global business networks and industry groupings. As one example of where their voices matter, business leaders should be calling on the over 90 governments that have still not done so to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), adopted by the UN in 2013 to regulate international trade in conventional arms and prevent and eradicate the illicit trade of these weapons. 

Business leaders should be calling on the over 90 governments that have still not done so to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty.

Finding solutions to the scourges of dangerous words and deadly weapons is no simple task. It will require business working alongside governments, civil society representatives, experts and all who have been victimised. Business must be part of the response to these growing threats to societies around the world. 


Photo credit: Flickr/Mark McGuire

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