Ardern focuses on online misinformation in Harvard address

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has delivered the 2022 commencement address to a crowd of 8,000 students at Harvard University.

Her speech touched on a wide range of topics, including her childhood growing up in Morrinsville, daughter Neve, and her cabinet’s diversity, pointing out the deputy prime minister is a “proud gay man".

But the overarching theme focussed on how society tackles the spread of misinformation online. It was a clear link to her experience leading New Zealand in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attack.

“We are at a precipice,” she said.

“And rather than ask what caused it, today I want to talk about how we address it,” she told the crowd.

The speech was greeted warmly by Harvard students, experiencing the first in-person graduation since 2019, with the last two years cancelled by the pandemic.

For some students the most recent semester has been the only one they’ve attended on campus - the pandemic conferring them to degrees via Zoom.

Ardern follows in the footsteps of previous commencement addressees including Angela Merkel, Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy.

The Prime Minister was also conferred an honorary degree, along with journalist Gloria Steinem, and World Kitchen founder Jose Andres.

She wore a kākahu for the occasion, a traditional cloak made by more than 250 women who worked on the piece together. It was woven from harakeke muka fibres, natural tree bark dyes and kiwi feathers more than 35 years old.

The Prime Minister’s address at times elicited a standing applause from the crowd, at the mention of decriminalised abortion and a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

But her speech also included a direct demand of social media companies to change the way they did they business.

“The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it,” she said.

Ardern implored corporates to uphold their terms of service and develop “responsible algorithm deployment”.

The Prime Minister now heads to the west coast of America for meetings with tech executives including management from Twitter. It’s expected she will continue the discussions around online misinformation, and the role of the Christchurch Call, in that meeting.