The fightback is online: how can technology and social media counter violent extremism?
ISIS’s skill in harnessing the power of social media is well known. In 2014–15, they were able to attract thousands of new followers and recruits through an aggressive, viral-led social media campaign of tweets, shares, and even professional-quality online journalism in the form of their monthly magazine Dabiq.
Researchers of extremism have known for some time that there is no single path to radicalisation. Similarly, in the fightback against extremism, there are many paths for counter-extremism initiatives to take.
In a July 2017 report, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (The Hague) emphasised the need for multiple communication mediums to be used in counter-messaging — not just social media — and noted the necessity of in-person interactions supporting online work. Here we explore a few of the successes, failures, controversies and opportunities in this fast-moving and complex area.
Rousing the Media Giants
Counter-terror advocacy groups such as the Counter Extremism Project have been calling for years for the major tech companies — Google/YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — to do more to manage extremist content being disseminated on their platforms.
It’s only now tech companies’ reputations — and bottom lines — are at stake that they are finally taking notice. After advertisers began discovering that their content was appearing alongside terror-inciting and hate-filled videos on Google’s YouTube, they began pulling business from the platform. Faced with loss of business and the prospect of tighter EU regulations, including a draconian new law allowing Germany to levy large fines, Google finally announced new measures to tackle online extremism last month. Together with Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, they announced the creation of a joint forum to counter terrorism, as well as expanding their content-moderator pool.
“There should be no place for terrorist content on our services. The uncomfortable truth is that we, as an industry, must acknowledge that more needs to be done. Now.” — Kent Walker, General Counsel at Google
For the moment, however, these social media platforms are playing catch-up, suspending accounts and removing content retroactively — in 2015–16 Twitter suspended 360,000 accounts.
Enter Tech — and the growing threat to our privacy
While media companies can only act after the event, technological developments are being put in place to allow more prospective action against extremist online activity.
Among the pioneers in this area is Google itself, working with partner organisations such as Moonshot (UK) and the Gen Next Foundation (US). Through its Jigsaw programme, it is harnessing the power of big-data and machine learning to challenge extremism online.
Among its programmes is The Redirect Method — a targeted advertising campaign that identifies would-be jihadis based on search terms and redirects them to anti-ISIS videos featuring former extremists; and Conversation AI, a filter for online discussion that uses machine learning to automatically detect insults or hate speech.
However, there is a dark flipside. With greater insight into our online activity by search companies and service providers comes greater opportunity for governments to trespass on the real freedoms of individuals. This is fast becoming clear in the Palestinian context: by Spring 2017 over 400 Palestinians had been detained under suspicion they may be involved in future terrorist attacks, according to Ha’aretz newspaper (paywall, Hebrew). They were detained not on the basis of evidence, but on the decision made by an algorithm. Thus while technological developments could be instrumental in preventing extremist activity, governments need to implement robust privacy law and regulation to protect individuals from overt interference in their lives.
A third way: ‘Strategic’ Counter-Messaging and civil society
In the past, governments have tried to implement a strategy that has become known as Counter Terror Strategic Communications: using social media to push narratives that run counter to those of extremists. In theory, this method is highly valuable, harnessing precisely the virality that has proven so successful for ISIS.
However, government-led programmes such as the US State Department’s #thinkagainturnaway hashtag campaign, which aimed to face ISIS media efforts head-on, have been a total failure. Not only did that initiative fail to generate virality, but actually succeeded in giving extremist voices a larger platform on Twitter. Dr Alastair Reed of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism noted that the ‘Say-Do gap’, between the narrative of Western governments and their actions on the ground since 2001, say, has meant that American efforts ring hollow. Morevoer, the tactic of tackling the ISIS narrative head-on only serves to give it air-time and even legitimacy — something any political communications expert would understand.
By contrast, civil society organisations are in a better position to harness the power of virality in the fight against online extremism: better at listening to the views and concerns of their communities, and — put simply — more tangible and credible bodies.
In the US, PeaceTech Lab have focused their attentions on the development of multimedia content — films, radio programming, etc. — in partnership with local organisations in Iraq and South Sudan.
In Palestine, Zimam have taken to heart the findings of a 2013 study of online radicalism, which found that the Internet is “not a substitute for in-person meetings but, rather, complements in-person communication”. Their video-journals (Arabic, English (subtitled)), following the work of local peace activists working in various sectors — media, education, tech — have racked up over 400K views.
Crucially, they are supported by a comprehensive on-the-ground training programme in five Palestinian cities focused on issues such as how to stay safe online, address threats and assess material independently. This last point is key: a recent Stanford survey on ‘Civic Online Reasoning’ found that university level students found tweets particularly hard data-sources to evaluate and respond to independently, often failing to adequately assess facts and survey data which may have been developed in a biased manner.
The challenges that counter-extremism policy has faced indicate that ultimately, real progress against extremist narratives must come from within civil society, not from the sporadic tweetings of the American governmental machinery. While technology giants have a greater role to play than they currently admit, a co-ordinated effort by groups such as Zimam and the PeaceTech Lab is the best way forward.