The Daily Telegraph
Social media must pull its weight in the fight against extremism
As the ripples of the Westminster attack dissipate, attention turns to the role of technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter in the process of radicalisation. Google was found to provide easy access to online terror manuals, while Boris Johnson demanded social media platforms crack down on “corrupting and polluting” messages.
These companies are not ignorant of the danger. All three have increased their response to violent and extremist material on their platforms in recent years – deleting posts, working with law enforcement and generating “counter-narratives”. But there is more they could be doing.
First, they could introduce identity verification requirements to deter users from publicly sharing violent and hateful material. Facebook and Twitter don’t demand users’ real names, while Google lets them use services such as YouTube without any account at all. Mandating that consumers create profiles using their actual identity – including real name, address and email – would be controversial, but would dampen the spread of extremism by making anonymity more difficult.
Secondly, companies could use the tools already at their disposal to not only promote counter-narratives but also help them find a specific audience. The US, UK and EU have all recruited film-makers and students to create anti-extremist material, but this is only valuable if it is seen by the right people at the right time. Online giants could use their sophisticated profiling capabilities to identify users at risk of radicalisation and ensure they see it.
Thirdly, artificial intelligence and image recognition software should be used to scan for and track illegal material, reducing the burden on humans who must manually flag and monitor it. This has already begun: Twitter last week began using IBM’s “Watson” AI system to hunt and censor abusive messages, while engineers at Dartmouth College in the US have created tools that automatically detect child pornography.
Companies will have to tread a fine line in order to prevent monitoring becoming surveillance and promotion of counter-narratives becoming propaganda. They must guarantee that extra information they collect about their users – such as real identity or propensity to radicalisation – will never be used for other purposes such as advertising. They must pledge to be open and transparent about their methods, laying out clear policies about what constitutes extremist material, explaining how they monitor their sites, and clarifying their relationship with law enforcement.
They will protest that it is not their job as “neutral” platforms to determine what is good and ungood. But these platforms are not neutral, and have already transformed the way violence spreads. Their owners must take responsibility for the communities and behaviour they foster.
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