November 20, 2018

Social media and the war against radicalization

One of the central questions during a recent expert panel discussion on the topic of social media and terrorist propaganda was simple: Who determines what content stays online and what is taken down?

Answering that question during the Sept. 20 event at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Fueling Extremism in a Wired World,” proved to be much more difficult.

Panelist David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression for the United Nations and law professor at UC Irvine, explained that social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are simply that — platforms — and not traditional media companies. 

“Legally, social media companies argue that they are intermediaries, and that’s a good argument,” he said. “Can we realistically ask social media companies to be liable for taking down the totality of the vitriol espoused through the platform when you’re talking about 1.7 billion users?” 

Kaye likened it to suddenly making the phone companies liable for the conversations conducted over their hardware. Even if companies did go after individual extremist social media accounts — something akin to “playing whack-a-mole, or more accurately ‘whack-a-troll,’ ” he said — there would be other ramifications.

“More importantly, by limiting what’s posted on these platforms, we reduce the effectiveness of the platforms as ways of sharing information. This information acts as an intelligence boon to law enforcement, as well,” he said. 

About 200 people attended the eighth annual Linda and Tony Rubin Lecture to discuss the role of social media and telecommunications technology in the recruitment of radical Islamists, and how to stop it. The panel, co-presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Loyola Marymount University, was moderated by Janine Zacharia, a journalist and a visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

Mouafac Harb, a panelist and independent media and political consultant who is former news director of two U.S. government-funded Arabic-language news outlets, argued that unlike phone lines, social media accounts require users to abide by user content agreements that forbid certain behavior, making the companies responsible for ensuring their community guidelines aren’t being violated.

And while it’s unclear how many people are radicalized solely through the internet (it’s currently being studied), it’s clear that the internet, much like radio during the Nazi regime, is helping disseminate dangerous ideologies.  

“We have to interrupt the process of indoctrination and vaccinate the vulnerable against this ideology [of Islamic extremism],” he said. “The internet speeds up the process of self-radicalization, turning a militant into a ‘weapons grade’ terrorist often before we have a chance to get them on our security radar. We don’t have the intellectual luxury of sorting through this slowly while people might be killed.”

Since the founding of our country, the balance between speech and security has been fraught with tension. According to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, unpopular ideologies and the venomous vitriol of fringe individuals and communities are completely legal forms of expression as long as they do not present an imminent threat. And a 1969 landmark Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, ruled that merely advocating violence is not illegal.

But what if an ideology is intrinsically violent? Harb suggested that the only way to deal with ISIS in the United States is to outright ban its ideology.

Kaye answered, “What you just said makes me really uncomfortable” — to which Harb responded, “It was supposed to make you uncomfortable.” 

However, Harb didn’t back off his suggestion that the ideology be banned, and with it, all promotional materials, including the relatively “peaceful” propaganda produced by ISIS, which makes up a large part of its international branding campaign.

According to the third panelist, Steven Luckert, senior program curator of digital learning and new media at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, only 5 to 20 percent of videos produced by ISIS for the purpose of recruitment are the violent videos seen in the West. 

One film shown at the event, “Peaceful in Nineveh,” was produced for an Iraqi audience and takes a different tone. It showed a theme park with children and families playing, and then a member of ISIS interviewing children about whether or not life was better after its occupation. If you believed what the youths were saying, then it truly sounded like ISIS saved Iraqi citizens from a far more oppressive regime.

“Just like the Nazis were good at niche branding with ads aimed specifically at women, youth and workers in different industries, so, too, is [ISIS] good at tailoring its campaign material to individuals,” Luckert said. 

Helping them is the fact that we all leave a personality footprint when we interact with the internet, making it all too easy for groups such as ISIS to target prospective recruits with emotional appeals based on their psychological (and Facebook) profile. The group understands that not everyone responds to violence. According to Luckert, creating positive feelings and empathy are an important part of its public relations plan. 

All three panelists, as well as Zacharia, agreed that countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives are the most effective way to stop radicalization. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines CVE as addressing “the root causes of violent extremism by providing resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts and [promoting] the use of counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging online.” 

Luckert and Zacharia felt that, at least domestically, media literacy and critical analysis of media need to be at the core of CVE.

“I’m teaching university students, and let me tell you,” Zacharia said, “you can’t start teaching them to think critically about sources and information too early.”