Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.
Removing and tracking terrorist groups and their propaganda online is no easy task. It has become the priority for many social media platforms.
Recently, Facebook, Google, and Twitter came together to explore how online advertising can be used to counterbalance the growing wave of extremist propaganda on the Internet and Twitter announced it has blocked 360,000 terrorists-related accounts since mid-2015.
A report by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think-tank that has pioneered policy and operational responses to the rising challenges of violent extremism and inter-communal conflict, on Facebook- Google-Twitter partnership examined the development, deployment, and evaluation of three counter-narrative campaigns. The study shows that while “Facebook produced the greatest reach, video views, and engagement for each campaign,” it is key to increase coordination between Silicon Valley, government, and civil society and at the same time help small to medium non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in producing, disseminating and evaluating counter-narratives and counter speech.
This project demonstrates that a coordinated effort between content creators, social media companies, and private sector partners can substantially boost the awareness, engagement and impact of counter-narrative campaigns and NGOs.
For Facebook, which counts over 1.7 billion monthly active users around the world, the challenge is monumental, if not for the sheer number of daily posts and videos — including live streams — also in terms of strategy moving forward.
According to Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy, the race to “scrub” that type of material from public view on social media can backfire in the long run.
When you do take down that content at the very initial stage, when somebody’s interacting with it, than you do lose that ability to see the rest of that escalation.
Earlier this year, Natalie Andrews and Deepa Seetharaman of the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was stepping up efforts to remove terrorists-related content, ban users who back terror groups, and investigates posts by their friends on the platform.
It has assembled a team focused on terrorist content and is helping promote “counter speech,” or posts that aim to discredit militant groups like Islamic State.
Facebook is also using automation technology, the same used to identify and remove copyright-protected content, to flag extremist propaganda and videos from its platform, according to a recent article published by the Guardian.
The move is a major step forward for internet companies that are eager to eradicate violent propaganda from their sites and are under pressure to do so from governments around the world as attacks by extremists proliferate, from Syria to Belgium and the United States.
But the online battleground against terrorist groups, including ISIS, is vast and difficult.
A recent report by cybersecurity firm Flashpoint shows that terrorist groups commonly use conventional social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter only for propaganda in order to grow their reach and the virality of their messages.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook inflate jihadist notoriety, driving unlimited traffic, new recruits, and a global audience.
The challenge for Facebook doesn’t stop with Facebook. The company also controls WhatsApp, widely used in Europe, the Arab world, and Latin America, and Messenger. Each have over 1 billion monthly active users.
The update means every instant message, picture, and video sent over the service will be protected from interception. Neither WhatsApp employees, law enforcement, nor criminals will be able to intercept the messages.
This is true only to a certain extent.
To note that most of the terror-related activity happens in the so-called dark web, through encrypted platforms — most commonly made for Android devices and proprietary or “jihadist-built” for Android as the study points out. And while only 40% of the smartphones in North America are Android, its penetration is over 60% in the Middle East and Africa region and in Latin America, as shown by a recent GlobalWebIndex report. In Europe, it is over 50%.
Flaishpoint’s analysis cites several end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms, including Facebook’s WhatsApp.
ISIS supporters are still wary of using Facebook’s WhatsApp. A major thought leader in the pro-ISIS technology community warned followers that, despite the new upgrade, “we cannot trust WhatsApp since WhatsApp is the easiest application for hacking.”
Similarly, The Daily Dot points out that the Afaaq Electronic Foundation (AEF), an arm of ISIS, has widely and publicly recommended against “using anything either owned by Facebook, like WhatsApp, or whose code is hidden and closed-source which would shield it from independent inspection for ‘backdoors’ that could give government spies access.”
A recent study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point indicates that “paradoxically, the most trusted encryption software is also the software whose source-code is public.” Thus, mandated ‘backdoors’ — in the US or elsewhere — would not apply to groups creating their own technology based on open-source software.
In the US and around the world, the policy and intelligence debate on messaging technologies, end-to-end encryption, and ‘backdoors’ is still at its infancy and counts many actors, players, and solutions.
“So what are the options?,” the Combating Terrorism Center states in its report.
Security agencies will need to outsmart the software. In end-to-end encryption, it is no longer viable to crack the encryption in the middle. Intelligence agencies must instead hack the software on the ends.
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