A call for united action in tackling online extremism
Addressing audience at the Google Zeitgeist Conference. This speech followed the personal testimony of a young British woman who was groomed online by representatives of Daesh or the so-called Islamic state. She is using a pseudonym of Leema to protect her identity.
Thank you Leema for sharing your story with us. We admire your courage and maturity in coming forward. Hearing stories like Leema’s is important for us all. Too often, until our own lives are touched by such tragedies, the risks seem remote, as if they don’t concern us – we are numb to the human impact of this very modern evil.
In fact, today my goal is to broaden your perspective as to how the threat of violent extremism manifests online and to explain why addressing it is such an urgent priority. Stories like Leema’s have become all too familiar in the UK and across Europe. Whilst Daesh or the so-called Islamic State’s positions have been degraded in Iraq and Syria, they are fighting a second war online for the hearts and minds of the next generation. They have been quick to leverage the power of social networks to disseminate propaganda on a mass scale. They have dedicated networks of radicalisers and recruiters who understand their audience, their grievances and how to exploit them. They prey on the young, isolated and vulnerable. Some of who are persuaded to leave their families to pursue an apocalyptic dream or take action that threatens our safety and security at home.
The generation most at risk are the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than their parents and teachers. They live their lives almost constantly connected to digital devices. This leaves them open and susceptible to influences online where they are not monitored or supervised. Open to opinions in an uncontested space.
And the perpetrators of this digital insurgency are often from the same peer group - digital natives, social media experts and coders. Their narrative is powerful, straightforward and simple: you are one of us, irrespective of where you come from. Join us and claim your place in history.
Folks, this might sound shocking but the ‘Islamic State’ has become a powerful global brand. Their messages are professionally produced and delivered in over 20 languages. They produce Hollywood style recruitment films glorifying violence and using game quality CGI. All of which are sanctioned by a central command. The brand is well-articulated and reinforced through, consistent taglines, music, and symbols such as the Daesh flag, iconic uniforms and Daesh-branded memorabilia such as watches, mugs and even children’s backpacks. All reflecting the highly partisan nature of its following.
Daesh also understand the concept of the marketing funnel – starting with mass communications that grab the attention of the widest possible audience then highly targeted techniques to refine their messages and increase the pool of those who are sympathetic, supportive and potential willing participants.
Incidentally this all happens in the same places where your brands and businesses operate online. So you might be asking, why aren’t their accounts suspended? Why isn’t their content taken down? Well, we do. When we discover it or the public brings it to our attention, the UK’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit notifies social media and communications service providers and the content is almost always removed. We have also supported the establishment of the EU’s Internet Referral Unit based on the UK model. But relying solely on governments and the public to identify this material simply isn’t enough.
Daesh have adapted their strategies too. They operate a dispersed network of accounts that automatically respond to take-downs and account suspensions. They use tactics such as swarmcasting that allow radical sympathizers to reconfigure their accounts to ensure a near persistent presence on social media platforms. In Daesh’s own words, this is an online war. And crucially, it is a war they believe they are winning.
Until recently, the call to action by the group to its followers was similar to Leema’s story – it was an invitation to travel, to make hijrah – to Daesh’s self-declared ‘Caliphate’. However, as governments have responded by making it more difficult to travel to the region, that trend is now reversing. The Pentagon has reported a dramatic 90% reduction in the flow of foreign fighters over the past year from 2,000 per month to approximately 200. The Washington Post last week attributed this to the Islamic State’s declining stature and appeal. This is in fact true. But it would be dangerous to assume the threat has subsided when the discontent that fuels it continues to grow.
In fact, just this past weekend Daesh, though its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released a message to followers who have been prevented from travelling to Syria instructing them to instead undertake domestic terrorism. But what is most troubling is the reporting of the Adnani speech. His call to action and ideological justification for acts of terror were dictated – literally word-for-word – by international broadcasters and the online coverage of this story was far worse. Not only were his violent provocations covered word for word, one British national newspaper embedded a video player within the story that played an unrelated and uncensored Daesh propaganda video showing children training for battle. When that video finished, another started on auto-play, then another and then another. A full catalog of horrific propaganda videos available on demand. We have to ask what is the news value of this? What public interest are they serving? The answer to both questions is none.
We must ensure that we are not inadvertently promoting or supporting Daesh through the exposure we give them directly or by surfacing their content organically online. We should take better care to portray the group for what it really is – an evil and twisted terror organisation promoting a distorted world-view.
Social media platforms are often said to heal themselves meaning that hateful or cruel content results in more people denouncing it than supporting it. We have seen this in response to acts of terror with hashtag campaigns such as #NotInMyName, #JeSuisCharlie, #PorteOuverte and #IllRideWithYou. All of these promoted messages of unity and the world rallied around them reflecting the public sentiment.
But this is not always the case. Often a fundamental asymmetry of passion exists in extremist rhetoric online. This invokes a strong reaction that makes posts rise to the top of the surface; making them appear to reflect widely held views when fact, they represent extreme or fringe views.
For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Brussels attacks, the hashtag #StopIslam became the second top global trending hashtag, with more than 200,000 retweets. While many of the retweets registered shock and concern, more than 100,000 tweets carried some form of far-right or Islamophobic sentiment. This highlights the ability of social platforms to catalyse and reinforce extremist sentiment, particularly in times of crisis. And Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US has made him a pawn of extremist groups. His words have been exploited by Daesh and al-Qa’ida and become a core element of the Islamist extremist narrative against the west. His now infamous quote is used in far right propaganda too. In fact, whilst their audiences may be different, Islamist and far-right extremists groups use the same tactics and put forth the same idea that life in the West is fundamentally at odds with Islam.
So today my goal has been to demonstrate the depths of the problem we face and to open a dialog. I believe that as we accelerate into an ever more connected and interdependent world, we must focus more on the common ground - our shared humanity. We must focus on what unites us, not what divides us. Ideals that bring people together, that spread knowledge and open minds. So when we see terrorist groups like Daesh and others pushing their hateful and violent provocations – ideologies that run counter to everything we believe in, we must act. We have some of world’s foremost business and thought leaders here today. Imagine what we can achieve together if we turn out attention and expertise to tackling this unprecedented challenge.
We welcome your innovative ideas and support. Whether it’s leveraging the power of your brands to speak the language of inclusiveness and belonging. Or perhaps by helping community and civil society groups to create, deliver and amplify alternative voices and positive narratives that undercut the Daesh brand proposition and that of other extremist groups. We need companies to champion and support projects that build digital resilience – programmes that help young people think critically about what they see and read online and to make informed and safe choices. Together with online safety charities we can help increase awareness, confidence and the capabilities of parents and teachers. There is one Internet for everyone, every age but sometimes we need to make special provisions to protect young people. It is imperative that developers consider these dangers alongside other Internet harms when creating new products and applications.
And in terms of technology, we need to improve solutions that automate the identification and removal of dangerous extremist content at scale and tools that better tackle automated bots and other techniques that support these propaganda machines. Daesh is not an advertising client of any media organisation. They don’t pay for the global exposure they receive online, but they benefit immensely from it. As top advertisers, I am sure that you find this as infuriating as I do. In free and democratic societies, even the worst racists and bigots enjoy freedom of expression. We can’t stop these extremist brands from communicating but we can ensure that they don’t distort legitimate techniques to achieve an even larger share of voice.
And finally, we must empower the global community with better tools to respond to and report harmful content; to speak out and take action. Every person has the ability to recognize bias, hatred, and intolerance and to say, no, not on my profile, not in my name.
These are just a few ideas. My real appeal to you today is to make this agenda your own. Freedom of expression and freedom of harm are two ideals that can and must co-exist. Let’s turn our ideas and creativity against the terrorists and extremists. We can’t let the world retreat to a dark place of ignorance and prejudice. We must stand up for a world in which knowledge, debate and discussion bring people closer together and make them feel part of something greater than themselves. We can’t let the technology that was developed to unite us be exploited by those who seek to divide us.
We started with the story of Leema. I would like to close with the story of Mourad Laachraoui. In March, his estranged brother Najim detonated one of the suicide vests at Brussels Zaventem airport. This past weekend Mourad, representing his home country of Belgium won the gold medal at the European Taekwondo championship. He rose above his grief and the tragedy that befell his family and his country and earned the right to represent Belgium at the Rio Olympics. A testament to the power of an individual and a nation to rise above evil and unite in shared humanity.
Click here for a film of the full speech: https://www.zeitgeistminds.com/talk/6126649917571072/joanna-shields-safety-and-security-in-a-connected-world-joanna-shields