Game Over for Online Extremism?

As well as steadily losing territory in the real world, ISIS is also finding it increasingly hard to retain control of its digital domain across social networks and messenger apps.

By Zeid Nasser

Social media platforms continue to play a prominent role as an unwitting enabler of Islamist extremism. Messenger services and social communication tools are also expanding this digital battleground. Even terror groups acknowledge this reality and publicly call on their followers to use services like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram.

As you would expect, social media companies have been taking a stand by self-regulating and have come under intense pressure to cooperate even further with counter-terrorism agencies; allowing ‘special access’ for law enforcement and handing over user data. The privacy issues this raises are a whole other conversation, but for now it seems that everyone involved is just trying to keep up with and control the current terror-driven dangers on these platforms.

Twitter in particular is ramping up efforts to tackle extremism. It recently announced that it had suspended 235,000 accounts in the first half of the year for “promoting terrorism.” Governmental agencies have been pleased by this, with the Obama administration recently stating that Twitter traffic for ISIS had declined significantly.

Facebook has also been vigilant, utilizing its large Community Operations team, which monitors content and now includes specialists on terror posts, working from its Dublin office. Facebook has also reportedly taken steps in recent months to suspend accounts or block violent content shared by ISIS supporters.

In response, terror groups have issued death threats to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. One group of extremist hackers sympathizing with ISIS created a 25-minute film claiming they’re fighting back against efforts by these social media giants to remove accounts promoting terrorism. The amateur video shows chilling pictures of both CEOs being blasted with a hail of bullets before ending with a direct threat. Yes, being a billionaire founder of a social media platform can be a dangerous business.

But it’s not stopping the social media platforms. YouTube is diligently taking down terrorism-affiliated videos that include hate speech, while Twitter said it’s relying on a mix of spam-fighting tools, expanded teams reviewing abuses, and forging new partnerships with organizations fighting violent extremism. The company has also recently announced a ‘Quality Filter’ to help people get rid of some of the noise and potential abuse on the platform, including extremism.

The US Senate is also getting involved, as it prepares legislation to award $25,000 for any tipping off law enforcement agencies that leads to the prevention of a terror attacks on US soil.

All these measures have gone some way to preventing ISIS sympathizers from continuing to use these platforms, which resulted in a shift to the encrypted messaging app, Telegram.

Telegram has become the messenger of choice for terror groups because it enables messages to be sent with client-to-client encryption. Unlike cloud-based messages, these can only be accessed on the device upon which the secret chat was initiated and the device upon which the secret chat was accepted. ISIS is recommending Telegram to its supporters and members. Towards the end of last year, it had 9,000 followers on its official Telegram channel. Since then, Telegram has blocked 78 public accounts operated by ISIS, and the cat-and-mouse chase continues.

It’s clearly vital for terror groups to stay on as many possible social media channels as possible, as these platforms provide valuable and effective fundraising and recruitment tools. The easy access and relative anonymity allows these groups to solicit online donations from both supporters and even unsuspecting donors, by tricking them into believing they’re supporting a humanitarian or charitable activity.

But if all these issues seem like too much to handle, life is actually getting even more complicated for social media companies as they may also find themselves liable for the results of terror-related activities on their platforms.

The family of an American killed in last year’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris have filed a lawsuit in a federal court charging that Google, Facebook, and Twitter allowed their social media platforms to be used to recruit jihadists, and even profited from advertisements linked to Islamist propaganda. The case states that Google, through its YouTube subsidiary, profits from putting ads on videos posted by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and Facebook and Twitter also insert ads on terrorist pages and posts.