Last week’s terrorist attack at Parsons Green station in London is just the latest reminder that our society and our very way of life are under constant threat. In each jihadist attack on Britain this year, it seems online radicalisation played some part in driving the perpetrators to violence, whether in providing the instructions for last week’s bomb or in spreading the hateful ideology behind these attacks. As a society, we are struggling to grasp the extent of the challenge and also appropriate ways of responding.
At present, we are certainly not winning the war online. As General David Petraeus says in his Foreword to Policy Exchange’s new report: “Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world. And now they are also exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.” Although ISIS are losing physical territory, they have maintained a consistent virtual output and presence throughout the last three years. In an average week, Islamist jihadists produce around 100 pieces of new content (and often much more than that). This covers everything from videos to images to essays, disseminated by means of a Swarmcast—an interconnected network that constantly reconfigures itself, much like a swarm of bees or flock of birds in mid-flight and is extremely resilient to disruption.
Our research shows that jihadists use different social media platforms in different ways. They communicate with each other via Telegram, which plays host to a rich array of textual and audio-visual extremist content. But for outreach activity aimed at a broader audience, they exploit the mainstream internet companies we all know—platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Twitter alone accounts for 40% of the identifiable traffic to jihadist content online. Tens of thousands of users access this content from all over the globe—the UK is the fifth most frequent location from which the content was accessed (after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq) —and the most frequent location in Europe.
Many of these companies are clearly not blind to this problem. They have assured governments and their users that they take this threat seriously, but so far these words have not led to actions that have proven decisive. The ability of jihadists to promote their message online in the mainstream public space is undiminished.
Unsurprisingly, our polling shows a crisis of confidence amongst the general public on this issue. Three quarters of British people feel that the big internet companies should be more proactive in locating and deleting extremist content and two thirds of people think that they are not doing enough at the moment to combat online radicalisation. These companies are famed for their innovation and intelligence, but they are not doing enough to apply those qualities to the battle against extremism.
It is clear that the status quo is not working. It is time for a new approach. The British Prime Minister and Home Secretary have, to their credit, led the way internationally, calling out the companies and demanding that more be done, including at the United Nations in New York this week. We have proposed a graduated six-step plan of measures by which the British government could put pressure on the leading tech companies to improve their performance, all of which have significant public support:
1. Ask the companies to revise and implement more stringent codes of conduct or terms of service that explicitly reject extremism.
2. Require the companies to work with and fund the efforts of an expanded Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.
3. Empower the forthcoming Commission for Countering Extremism to oversee content removal online.
4. Establish a new independent regulator of social media content, within the purview of Ofcom.
5. Put in place a system of financial penalties, administered by the independent regulator, to force company compliance.
6. Consider ways in which the existing legislation against the distribution of extremist material can be used to prosecute repeat offenders from the tech companies.
Of course, one hopes that it doesn’t come to this. The best solution for everyone is for the internet companies to take the lead on this issue. Yet it may be the case that governments have to help these corporations to help themselves by showing tough love.
As our report recognises, dealing with a problem of this magnitude requires action across society. At the other end of the supply chain, we recommend that the government find new ways to reduce “demand”—by also targeting those who wish to consume extremist material. At present, the legal framework for dealing with this issue is fragmented. There is also no prohibition on the consumption or possession per se of extremist content. One option for dealing with this would be to develop civil remedies—perhaps by extending mechanisms such as the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), or revisiting proposals for “Extremism Disruption Orders”. Alternatively, the government could consider new legislation that would criminalise the “aggravated possession and/or persistent consumption of material that promotes hatred and violence in the service of a political ideology”. Such powers would need to be framed carefully to avoid any undue infringement of civil liberties, but the scale of the challenge requires innovative thinking and a bold new approach—and our survey suggests there is a public mandate to do more: two thirds of British people believe that the internet should be a regulated space in which extremist material is controlled.
Getting the balance right between liberty and security online is not easy and it requires us to confront difficult questions about the role of the State in relation to the internet and the moral and social norms that are appropriate to the digital age. But this issue is vital to UK national security and there is a danger that the blood and treasure we are investing in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria will produce little more than a pyrrhic victory, unless we act to defeat the virtual threat.
Dr Martyn Frampton is Co-Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange and the lead author of The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online.