February 05th, 2018

Even if big internet companies manage to shut down terrorist content from their platforms using sophisticated algorithms, the problem itself will not cease to exist.

Billions of everyday citizens are using the social media platforms. So are the terrorists. Youtube is used to distribute videos of radical content. Facebook is used for operational and tactical information, such as bomb recipes, weapon maintenance, tactical shootings, links to extremist sites and Facebook groups according to the US Department of Homeland security. Twitter has been used for recruitment and radicalization by the Islamic State.

Tech companies have been tackling the issue of fighting terrorist content online proactively using artificial intelligence for flagging terrorist content. In September 2017, Twitter announced in its transparency report the taking down of 300,000 terrorist accounts in that year only – three quarters of them even before the tweet being sent. Youtube site has launched an experiment to fight the propaganda-related content against ISIS recruits in 2017. Facebook takes responsibility in eliminating terrorist content.

As terrorist attacks have been proliferating, US and European governments are pushing the responsibility on the tech companies and urging them to take countermeasures against terrorist content spreading on social media platforms. In 2016, internet companies, such as Google, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter aligned with the European Commission this trend by applying technology to automatically detect terrorist material. Governments want more. In 2017, Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom urged Google, Facebook and Twitter to take down terrorist content within two hours or face heavy fines. She made this announcement after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, and Paolo Gentiloni, the Prime Minister of Italy at the general assembly of the United Nations. May added that “industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online, and developing technological solutions which prevent it being uploaded in the first place.”

In 2018, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter agreed to remove terrorist content within 24 hours after a long discussion with EU regulators. The EU Commission went further and issued a recommendation in March 2018 to increase response time in taking down terrorist content in one single hour.

 Even though the technology applied is getting more and more sophisticated and quicker – but like all models – they do not work with 100 percent accuracy. The Commission expects tech companies to delete content proactively – which may cause collateral damage – due to the very nature of artificial intelligence.

Such collateral damage are the false positives, when artificial intelligence-based algorithms of the big internet companies detect and take down content, which were not meant to be terrorism-related and gets removed accidentally. Such automatized taking down of content does harm freedom of speech.

However, terrorists are not only using the big internet companies’ platforms, but also more and more the smaller ones using end-to-end encryption, such as Telegram, WhatsApp or Snapchat. Telegram is used by ISIS to share and disseminate propaganda, but the platform also fights. The attacker at the London bridge in 2017 sent his last message using Whatsapp, and police had hard time in getting the content of the message. Members of DAESH behind the 2015 Paris attacks were using Telegram to spread propaganda, and also used to recruit people for the Christmas market attack in Berlin in 2016. Snapchat is popular among jihadist extremists.

Even if big internet companies manage to shut down terrorist content from their platforms using sophisticated algorithms, the problem itself will not cease to exist. Terrorists will find their ways to communicate via the internet, either by the enlisted end-to-end encrypted social media platforms, or others unknown as of now. Governments and companies need to adapt to the ever-changing situation using an evolving technology – but also keeping the privacy of the citizens in the forefront of the fight against terrorism.

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