At U.N., Leaders Tell Tech Industry to Do More to Fight Terrorism

Online radicalization drives calls for a tougher crackdown on propaganda and encrypted messages.

may macron

NEW YORK — British Prime Minister Theresa May called on technology firms to radically increase the speed with which they remove terrorist content from the internet after a series of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom carried out by individuals who were radicalized online.

At a side event on Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, the British leader said that recent terrorist attacks in Britain and beyond show how the Islamic State has used social media to spread its influence far beyond the borders of its self-described caliphate.

After the Islamic State posted instructions to its followers on how to attack civilians in the West using vehicles, the group’s supporters responded by mowing down pedestrians in downtown London. Such propaganda must be far more quickly removed from the internet, May argued on Wednesday.

“Our aim should be to ensure terrorist material is detected and removed within one to two hours,” May said.

At an event her government helped organize along with those of French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni, May said bluntly that governments themselves cannot stop the spread of terrorism and extremist ideology without the help of social media companies.

The use of social media to spread radical ideas is just the latest iteration of the spread of extremist ideas, techniques, and tactics. Decades ago, would-be jihadists read contraband books by ideological leaders. Later, al Qaeda’s leadership would use audio and video cassettes to spread their message. But with the spread of social media, and the ability to maintain anonymity online, it has become faster and easier than ever for extremists to disseminate their ideas — and with far greater geographical reach.

Now, following a spate of online-inspired attacks, Western leaders are taking a harder line on cracking down on the Islamic State’s digital presence, an initiative that gained momentum at this summer’s G7 meeting in Taormina, Italy. That confab took place just after an ISIS-claimed bombing at a Manchester arena left 22 dead and 59 injured, just one of five terrorist attacks to shake the United Kingdom this year.

May said tech firms have made progress in removing terrorist content and say that the average time to remove such material went from six days to 36 hours in the first half of 2017.

“But that is still 36 hours too long,” May said, stressing that the industry needs to go further and faster.

Kent Walker, Google’s vice president and general counsel, said the search giant earlier Wednesday announced a $5 million innovation fund to give grants to non-governmental groups and researchers that promote anti-extremist narratives.

Walker spoke on behalf of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, an initiative comprised of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, set up in June to more effectively share information about terrorist propaganda efforts and technological fixes for blocking their messages.

“Terrorism isn’t just a business concern or a technological challenge,” Walker said, stressing that employees of companies like Facebook and Twitter are also citizens, making them eager to share best practices and research patterns of misuse together.

But the Islamic State’s use of encrypted communication tools and slick propaganda has left Western security officials scrambling to clamp down on the group’s online presence, and is driving European security officials to push tech firms to throw a lot more resources into quickly removing extremist content.

The United States and its European allies placed intense pressure on firms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google to quickly remove Islamic State propagandists from their platforms and to curb the spread of extremist content online.

One proposal eyed by European security officials includes expanding the use of anti-spam technology to automatically recognize terrorist propaganda and to block it before it is posted.

Such a proposal poses significant concerns for Silicon Valley firms, who are loath to roll out technologies that may inadvertently block legitimate posts and restrict users’ freedom of speech online. Other content, such as sermons promoting notions of jihad, may not immediately run afoul of firms’ restrictions on promoting violence and present thorny questions about what kind of speech companies can legitimately restrict.

Tech firms have responded by stepping up some efforts to remove violent, graphic images and to quiet propagandists using platforms such as Twitter to recruit followers, thousands of whom travelled from Middle Eastern states, Europe, and the United States to fight with the group in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, Twitter announced that it has removed just short of 1 million terrorist-promoting accounts from its platform between Aug.1, 2015 and and June 30, 2017, and that it is increasingly able to remove accounts pushing pro-Islamic State messages before they are ever able to tweet.

These efforts appear to have paid dividends, according to terrorism and social media researchers. As of early 2017, the average age of a Twitter account promoting Islamic State content was one day, according to data collected by J.M. Berger, a social media researcher and a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism think tank.

But there may not be much more progress left to be made. “They are at a point of diminishing returns, in which they would have to invest a lot of time and technology to achieve what would be pretty incremental improvements,” Berger said.

As tech firms have cracked down on terrorist content online, the Islamic State appears to have adapted. The group typically broadcasts propaganda and news on group chat on the encrypted messenger service Telegram, a Berlin-based firm that has been far less acquiescent to European and American demands to crack down on the radical group.

That prompted May to call for efforts to fight terrorists’ use of encryption. “I recognize this isn’t something we can fix overnight. But I know together we can make significant strides,” May said, before adding that she didn’t want to only see propaganda removed, but also “abuse of the encrypted messaging apps” put to a stop.

Government interference in encrypted technologies has concerned tech leaders and internet freedom watchdogs worried about privacy violations. But the French president, for one, isn’t buying it.

“We have to have a name and shame policy here, if I may use the anglicism. We have to praise those who want to go with us and shame those who are against us,” Macron said. “There are only two sides.”

“You have to decide where you stand. Ambiguity is no good here,” he concluded.

Photo credit: STEPHANE LEMOUTON/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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