When the internet was first thought up 36 years ago, no one could have predicted what it would become. It started as a virtual encyclopedia, just a poor quality screen displaying information. It eventually became what it is today: a melting pot of cute animal pictures, memes about your bank balance that hit a little too close to home, and divisive politics.
In recent years, the divisive politics side of things has undeniably become more present in most people’s timelines. With the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, it has become pretty difficult to scroll for even a minute without the next person’s “hot take”.
But bubbling away in the background was a much darker side to the politics that most of us are used to. On Twitter, ISIS shared political messages urging young Muslims to join them. On 4Chan, an anonymous forum, misogynist groups like incels, usually men who believe they are being denied sex by women, began to grow. Elsewhere, on sites like Facebook, white nationalist groups started to come together.
In all instances, these sites became a breeding ground for ideas which had severe consequences. Shamima Begum was groomed online as a teenager and convinced to fly to Syria and join ISIS. Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, and became an “incel hero“. Just two months ago, a man entered a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and live streamed himself shooting and killing 51 people.
How Is The Internet Spreading Extremism?
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The internet has undeniably changed the way people communicate. Large social media sites mean that in seconds you can contact someone on the other side of the world, and for the most part, that should be seen as a good thing, explained Adam Hadley, the director of Tech Against Terrorism, an organisation which works with global tech companies and policymakers to tackle terrorist use of the internet while respecting human rights.
“Terrorism is not caused by the internet, terrorism is caused by real problems in society. Typically, very poor governments and bad politics,” Hadley told RightsInfo.
However, it would be wrong to ignore its role in breeding terrorism, explained the executive director of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), David Ibsen: “It is also a medium that can be misused to spread hate and violence.”
The internet has unfortunately enabled the widespread and rapid dissemination of extremist material and violent content.
Dr Rakib Ehsan, Research Fellow, Henry Jackson Society
“In the last decade, we have seen a surge in terrorist content online linked directly to the growing importance of social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, which allow their users around the world to communicate, have also created a platform of expression for radical and extremist ideologies,” Ibsen told RightsInfo.
The reason that it has become so easy to share extremist ideas and content? Well, the share button.
“The internet has unfortunately enabled the widespread and rapid dissemination of extremist material and violent content, particularly through “sharing” mechanisms on social media platforms,” explained Dr Rakib Ehsan, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.
“In addition to this, live-streaming features are being exploited by terrorists to provide ‘thrilling’ live footage of their deadly acts,” Dr Ehsan told RightsInfo.
How Can Technology Be Used To Stop Extremism?
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Ibsen believes that big companies and platforms have “failed” in creating an effective and consistent solution and that automated technology “needs to be widely available”.
This technology already exists, Ibsen explained, in the form of a system created by Professor Hany Farid, a CEP Senior Adviser, which identifies harmful content, gives it a digital fingerprint which can then detect reuploaded content and remove it whether it’s an image, video or audio file.
However, the eGLYPH, as it’s known, doesn’t tackle forums and groups, where the harm comes from discussions which can plant extremist ideas on impressionable people who may act out violently.
We’re always going to see political violence in society. We always have, we always will. The question is, what is the threshold that we find acceptable.
Adam Hadley, Director, Tech Against Terrorism
Hadley believes that it is difficult to simply delete posts or groups where extremist ideas or terrorist plans are being discussed.
“Content takedown can be effective,” he explained. “However, there’s very little guidance on the legality or regulatory framework of such a thing.”
Moreover, if you delete a group, then “two, three, four or five more” will just pop up in its place.
Rather than taking down everything, Hadley believes that tech companies will have to pick and choose their battles. To help this, Tech Against Terrorism collects terrorist propaganda and uses it to develop practical terminology dictionaries which help companies draw the line on when extremism is too extreme.
“We’re always going to see political violence in society. We always have, we always will. The question is, what is the threshold that we find acceptable,” Hadley explained.
Why Are Human Rights Important?
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What freedoms and rights and prosperity are we prepared to give up in favour of more security?
Adam Hadley, Director, Tech Against Terrorism
Hadley says companies and policymakers must respect human rights, specifically Article 10, when tackling online extremism and terrorism.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to free expression. It means we can have our own opinions and share them with others. It applies even if our views might upset or offend people. But the right to say whatever we want can be restricted in certain circumstances, for example, to prevent crime or protect the rights or reputations of others.
“Terrorists use the internet just like everybody else, this is the biggest problem. You can’t really keep them off the internet,” Hadley said. “We just try to stop the exploitation. We value freedom of expression.”
What would help experts in respecting Article 10 is an international definition of terrorism so that the boundaries between an extreme thought and a violent act can be drawn.
“The question is, what is the threshold that we find acceptable? What freedoms and rights and prosperity are we prepared to give up in favour of more security? What is that threshold we want as a society and what are we prepared to pay for that?”