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Tech Joins Anti-Extremist Meeting

8 October 2014 by Jenn Granger

Whilst for most of us Facebook and Twitter are ways of pretending that, instead of spending our Saturdays in our pyjamas eating Ben and Jerry’s, we have active, healthy social lives; it’s time to face the fact that social media and technology can also be used for far more sinister agendas. And although many a celeb or political figure have yet to grasp social media basics, extremist groups have been using it with increasing effectiveness to spread their messages. Today experts from across the EU will come together to talk about online extremism and how they can cooperate to help stop it spreading.


On an average day, the most damage you could probably do on Twitter is accidentally re-tweet a Justin Bieber quote or something equally mortifying; but in the hands of some extremist groups, social sites are being used as a tool for recruiting new members, and as a way of spreading their content quickly (like the recent video of James Foley’s beheading). And whilst some experts are saying that networks are doing all they can, others say we’re losing the battle and that they should spend less time looking for things like copyright infringement and more time stopping this kind of content spreading.

And it is spreading. At one point, IS (formerly Isis) used an app to send out automated tweets on its users’ behalf, and launched hashtag campaigns to get their content trending. By using social media, the extreme Islamic group have tapped into a free marketing vein and gained the kind of publicity (or in this case, notoriety) that organisations usually pay big bucks for. They managed to find ways of getting around Twitter’s spam filters by carefully timing their messages, and in one day managed to get 40,000 tweets out; because it was so widespread it was hard for Twitter to control the situation. Twitter has started to disable prominent accounts though, which is making it harder for groups like IS to spread their messages; although they’re just moving to less patrolled platforms.

Tonight 28 countries will come together to discuss the spread of extremism, including how the EU and key sites can put their heads together more efficiently. Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Facebook will be joining the meeting in Luxembourg to try and find out how to stop the use of social media and the internet for recruiting and spreading extremist messages.

In particular, they say the meeting will focus on:

  • The challenges posed by terrorists’ use of the internet and possible responses: tools and techniques to respond to terrorist activities online, with particular regard to the development of specific counter-narrative initiatives.
  • Internet-related security challenges in the context of wider relations with major companies from the internet industry, taking account due process requirements and fundamental rights.
  • Ways of building trust and more transparency.

Security Minister James Brokenshire is repping for the UK, and said: “We already work with the internet industry to remove terrorist material hosted in the UK or overseas and continue to work with civil society groups to help them challenge those who promote extremist ideologies online. We have also made it easier for the public to report terrorist and extremist content via the website.”

Generally social media sites haven’t been monitoring for specifically ‘terroristy’ posts, but will take content down following complaints from users. The problem is that on the one hand, leaving social media open as a tool in this kind of situation is arguably dangerous; on the other hand, restricting the use of it could do damage to counter-terrorism efforts – and censoring is always something to be wary of anyway.

It’s true that the way that we are sharing – and the content itself – can have a massive impact; from awful Twitter trends like #cutforbieber, which targets the young, to recent controversy over whether the final moments of a person’s life (sparked by the Foley beheading) should be shared on sites. The debate around what kind of content a social media site can and will allow – and how to monitor that – continues tonight; and at a potential 40,000 tweets a day, it can’t come a moment too soon.

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