Online jihadist propaganda attracts more clicks in Britain than in any European country, according to a new report.
Researchers found that Britain has the fifth-biggest audience for extremist content online, after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Despite being on the retreat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is producing at least 100 content pieces every week, including videos of bomb-making and executions.
Disrupting their content is hampered by the high production rate and “failing counter-measures”. The 131-page assessment finds that the online decline of the Islamic State has been “overstated”.
Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, published The New Netwar: Countering Extremism online on 19 September, ahead of a meeting between prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron to tackle online extremism.
Countering online extremism
The two heads of state will be discussing potential measures such as fines for online platforms that fail to take down extremist content fast enough.
The report finds the online jihadi ecosystem is spread across hundreds of domains and reaches an audience of, at minimum, tens of thousands. Its resilience means neutralising extremist content is very difficult.
As Facebook and Twitter began to crack down on ISIS-supporting accounts, many jihadists and their sympathisers adapted and flocked to more encrypted channels of communication such as Telegram. This works like Whatsapp with end-to-end encryption to protect shared information and boasts features such as self-destructing messages. The report describes the app as a “safe haven” for jihadists due to such features.
“As in the child’s game of whack-a-mole, when pushed down in one place, extremist elements often pop up in another,” the report states.
The researchers claim output has not reduced in the last three years, despite claims to the contrary. The Jihadist rely on “Swarmcast” – an interconnected network that constantly reconfigures itself, allowing the Islamic State “and their sympathisers to outmanoeuvre all efforts to-date to reduce significantly their online presence.”
General David Petraeus, former US commander in Iraq and CIA director, writes in the foreword of the report that the attempted tube bombing at Parsons Green last Friday, with a device potentially created following online instructions, highlighted the gravity of the threat.
“Efforts to counter online extremism have, in fact, generally failed to advance beyond tactical, ad hoc, and reactive responses. Recent initiatives announced by some media platforms and service providers are of course welcome. Nonetheless, as the authors explain, we need to see delivery on promises.”
He added that Jihadists are exploiting “ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.”
Controlling the internet
Policy Exchange surveyed 2,001 adults in the UK, finding 74% of people supported new laws to criminalise the “persistent consumption” of extremist material online.
Two-thirds of the British people believe tech companies are not doing enough to combat online radicalisation and three-quarters of them want those companies to do more to locate and remove extremist content, according to the report.
The results also suggest the UK public would welcome an independent advisory body to monitor online content, the same way OfCom regulates television.
But the vastness of communication online would hamper a regulatory body. Machines that are as capable as humans in differentiating between different types of content do not exist yet according to tech giants.
Machines can more easily identify images: which is why child pornography is easier to pick out than interpreting extremist content.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, said his company was working on artificial intelligence “to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda” to be able to take action. However, he added that this was “technically difficult, as it requires building AI that can read and understand news”.
Monitoring and regulating the internet remains very controversial as it goes in areas of censorship. Another complication has been the global nature of the platforms where hate and abuse is spewed. In the US, legislation prevents platforms owners from being held legally responsible for content unless asked to remove something by law.
Martyn Frampton, lead researcher, warned: “The evidence suggests that we are not winning the war against online extremism.”
He added: “If the internet companies won’t do what their customers want and take more responsibility for removing this content, then government must take action through additional regulation and legislation.”
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