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.

FOLLOW Cara McGoogan on Twitter @cjmcgoogan;

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