The War Against Online Extremist Material
The internet is a natural home for extreme ideas. People with a viewpoint will always seek a community where that viewpoint is welcomed. Real life social morays usually prohibit discussing certain views deemed extreme or bigoted in person; the more extreme a viewpoint, the less likely its holder will have any real-life outlet for it. Therefore they seek a home online, where they can meet like-minded individuals in safety and anonymity.
YouTube, which has long faced allegations that its lax standards create a haven of racist, supremacist, and conspiracy-theory laden videos, has announced that going forward, it will ban videos which promote “the superiority of one group over another” in matters of race, sex, religion, and other protected classes. Pro-Nazi and neo-Nazi content will also be banned as “inherently discriminatory.”
Other social media companies, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, have also begun to ban pundits and mouthpieces deemed “extremist,” such as Infowars, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Louis Farrakhan. In the past few months, Reddit has moved to ban or quarantine subs such as r/The_Donald for promoting threats and repeatedly violating community standards. However, Reddit has been criticized for inconsistency and lack of follow-through; for instance, after the shutdown of r/Incels, a male supremacist board, many users simply moved to r/Braincels, an identical but less public board.
Jim Watkins, owner of 8Chan, a popular forum platform infamous for playing host to white supremacists and as a dumping ground for the manifestos of shooters, was subpoenaed before Congress on Sept. 5, 2019, where he outlined his site’s policy for dealing with hate speech. Watkins announced new plans to lock parts of 8Chan to “read-only” mode during states of emergency. He stated that 8Chan will remain “voluntarily offline” while it develops better models for controlling content. However, he also maintained that “constitutionally protected hate speech” will not be censored.
U.S. presidential candidate Robert “Beto” O’Rourke has called for social media companies to crack down on extremism and disinformation as well as bots which exist to spread this information. O’Rourke took this stand after a hoax post claiming that the Odessa shooter had a “Beto 2020” sticker on his car was retweeted over 11,000 times on Twitter and posted over 42,000 times on Facebook. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have also called for government regulation to hold social media giants accountable for extremist content; Elizabeth Warren has called for the breakup of Facebook, among others, as an accountability measure for what she sees as social media monopolies.
Beyond potential proposals, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act of 2017 forces social media companies to remove hate speech within one hour after the company is notified. Failure or refusal to do so can lead to fines of up to 50 million euros. In the Europeon Union, a one-hour deadline law against terrorist material was recently passed. After the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, Australia’s government has moved to cut off access to any internet domain hosting terrorist material during a crisis event, and is planning legislation to improve the safety of social media services. Additionally, Australia is proposing a 24/7 Crisis Coordination Centre monitoring extremist content.
New methods are always needed to combat online extremism, which is exactly why it remains so difficult to defeat. Online extremism is unpredictable and constantly changing--to defeat it requires constant vigilance and persistence. Legislation can only go so far, especially in countries like the United States where hate speech is federally protected. Occasionally, public pressure can lead to the removal of popular extremist figures on social media that cross the line, but lesser known, more careful individuals can continue to build their audiences with little interference. Bans can remove an individual, but not his or her idea. An individual can be kicked off of YouTube for racist and violent rhetoric, for example, but migrate to Bitchute to express the same views. Granted, this can lead to less exposure, but it also pulls similar individuals towards less mainstream sites, which are less regulated and serve to better develop extremist beliefs. Even when host providers remove extremist sites like Stormfront, a website tied to close to 100 murders, new providers will almost always emerge to fill the void. Thus far, the fight against online extremism has been a perpetual game of whack-a-mole.
The root of the issue is page views and revenue. Extremists removed from one platform will find another; users booted from 4Chan went to 8Chan, users kicked from Reddit found Telegram and Gab, and when Cloudflare was pressured into dropping 8Chan, Epik stepped in. The more users a site has, the more ad revenue it can generate. Public shame has produced results on Facebook and Twitter, but companies with a less public presence are less susceptible to pressure. Others invent workarounds to avoid bans; neo-Nazis now use YouTube for its powerful live streaming service, deleting their own videos afterward. There will always be some forum willing to play host to extremism, short of banning people or certain ideas from the internet as a whole--which will prove both legally dubious and practically impossible.
Booting users from “safe” sites such as Facebook removes them from the public eye but it may also radicalize them if they feel persecuted for their beliefs--entrenching them further into their extremism. Thus the dilemma: ban too many people and risk driving offended users into the arms of radical ideologues; ban too few and the ones who remain can spread “softer” versions of their ideology. And while removing extremists from public view limits their influence, it also hides dangerous individuals from oversight; an Islamic State recruiter on Twitter is at least visible to authorities, that same recruiter on Telegram is not.
While companies have always been able to set their own community standards, free and open speech has always been considered a cornerstone of the internet. Giving a corporate entity authority to censor “unacceptable” speech will agitate many users; more so giving that same control to a government regulator. And standards of extremism are fluid and political; the ability to de-platform radical Islamists or neo-Nazis might do more harm than good if used by governments to suppress dissent or blacklist protesters.
Time will tell if Australia’s new implementations will work effectively. With government officials and politicians pressuring the UN to look deeper into this issue, new developments are expected to occur rapidly. Meanwhile, many have criticized Germany’s new law as failing to effectively stop the flow of extremist content, showcasing that there is still plenty of research and work to do. Despite that, there has never before been such a concerted effort to remove extremist content and figures from the internet by governments and social media companies than there has been now. It remains to be seen whether or not a permanent, safe solution can be found, or if extremism and the fight against it will require constant vigilance and research to defend against violent and dangerous beliefs well into the future.
The spread of online ideology is considered the most potent vector of extremism by our team. The Counterterrorism Group, and the Extremism Team in particular, continue to monitor developments in both the social and legal arenas regarding online speech and the dissemination of extremist content in order to provide timely and accurate information for the decision-making of our clients.
1. YouTube Is Banning Extremist Videos. Will It Work?, Wired, June 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/how-effective-youtube-latest-ban-extremism/
2. Instagram and Facebook Ban Far-Right Extremists, The Atlantic, May 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/instagram-and-facebook-ban-far-right-extremists/588607/
3. Reddit restricts its biggest pro-Trump board over violent threats, Vox, June 2019, https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/6/26/18760288/reddit-the-donald-trump-message-board-quarantine-ban
4. 8chan owner vows changes in House testimony over links to mass shootings, Reuters, Sept 2019, https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-usa-shooting-tech/8chan-owner-vows-changes-in-house-testimony-over-links-to-mass-shootings-idUKKCN1VQ2DU
5. 8chan ‘has no intent of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech,’ owner tells Congress, Wired, Sept. 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/9/5/20850791/8chan-hate-speech-delete-jim-watkins-infinitechan-el-paso-shooting-racist-white-supremacist
6. Democrat O'Rourke presses U.S. social media companies to combat disinformation, Reuters, Sept. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-orourke/democrat-orourke-presses-u-s-social-media-companies-to-combat-disinformation-idUSKCN1VS00D
7. Democrats Running For President Say Social Media Companies Have A White Nationalist Problem. Some Think Regulation Should Be The Answer, Buzzfeed News, May 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryancbrooks/2020-regulate-social-media-white-nationalism-facebook
8. Tough new German law puts tech firms and free speech in the spotlight, the Guardian, January, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/05/tough-new-german-law-puts-tech-firms-and-free-speech-in-spotlight
9. EU proposal requires platforms to delete ‘terrorist content’ in 1 hour or face fines, The Next Web, April 2019, https://thenextweb.com/eu/2019/04/08/eu-proposal-terrorism-regulation-1-hour-fines/
10. Australia’s plan to block sites hosting extremist content during crisis events seems flawed, TNW, August 2019, https://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2019/08/26/australias-plan-to-block-sites-hosting-extremist-content-during-crisis-events-seems-flawed/
11. Stormfront: ‘murder capital of internet’ pulled offline after civil rights action, Guardian, August, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/29/stormfront-neo-nazi-hate-site-murder-internet-pulled-offline-web-com-civil-rights-action
12. How big tech and policymakers miss the mark when fighting online extremism, Brookings Institute, August 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2019/08/07/how-big-tech-and-policymakers-miss-the-mark-when-fighting-online-extremism/