Recruiting technology companies to combat extremism on social media

Extremists are exploiting the Internet. A new report by the Center on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG) and Digitalis Reputation asks what we can do about it.

CRG notes that when Donald Trump suggested he would build a wall on the Mexican border, Hillary Clinton retorted, “How high does a wall need to be to keep out the Internet?” Today, radicalization takes place in bedrooms, in libraries, on mobile phones. Connectivity and globalization cannot be stopped — nor should they. But how can we stop the oncoming traffic of internet radicalization?

In this new report, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics and Digitalis Reputation aim to shed light on how accessible extremist content is beyond social media, with a particular focus on the role played by the search engine Google. Initiatives for better understanding extremism on the Internet have predominantly been led by experts in extremist ideology or the sociological aspects of radicalization. Technology firms, key stakeholders in this fight, have played a less prominent role.

The authors of the study set out not only to identify jihadi content online, but also to find out the extent to which non-jihadi extremist content is accessible. ISISmay seem like the apex of Islamist extremism, but it shares an ideology with others who seek the same objectives and share a worldview. The researchers wanted to know how easily the average user could access extremist material.

They looked at:

  • The average monthly number of global searches conducted in Google for 287 extremism-related keywords, 143 in English and 144 in Arabic.
  • Regional search frequencies in thirty-three regions, including six U.S.cities, eight U.K. cities, and eleven countries from the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The first two search engine results pages for forty-seven keywords to determine rankings of extremist and counter-narrative content, looking at a total of 870 Web pages.
  • The linking data of forty-five extremist Web sites, in order to understand inter-Web site relationships and search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.

Key findings of the report
A wide range of extremist content is available online
The study found a broad array of extremist content on Web sites, including violent and non-violent publications. Extremist views on sectarianism, apostasy, and conspiratorial attitudes towards the West — ideas that permeate much of ISIS’ output — feature on mainstream Islamic Web sites. The researchers found that, of the extremist content accessible through these specific keyword searches, 44 percent was violent, 36 percent was non-violent, and 20 percent was political Islamist content, that is, non-violent content propagated by, or in support of, a known Islamist group with political ambitions.

Web searches are a gateway to violent extremist content
The average, interested Internet user requires nothing more than a simple Google search to gain access to extremist publications from groups like ISISand al-Qaeda. Whether through analysis sites or otherwise, jihadi content is accessible via Google, without the need for social media. From the study’s sample, the researchers found there are on average in the region of more than 484,000 Google searches globally, and at least 54,000 searches in the United Kingdom alone, each month for keywords that return results dominated by extremist material. While a wide range of people may have conducted some of these searches, including journalists, researchers, and students, the risk posed by the prevalence of extremist content in these search results is of concern.

Counter-narratives are lagging, but Muslim efforts dominate
Counter-narrative efforts are not challenging the extremist content found in search engine results pages, with efforts appearing in only 43 of the 870 results analyzed, just 5 percent of the total. However, of the counter-narratives identified, 91 percent were Muslim-led. CRG notes that this highlights the efforts taken by Muslims to address the rising tide of extremist ideology online. It is estimated that close to three billion people have access to the Internet around the globe, a number expected to swell to more than seven billion by 2020. The need to address the issue and safeguard Internet users has never been more pressing.

— Read more in Mubaraz Ahmed and Fred Lloyd George, A War of Keywords: How extremists are exploiting the Internet and what to do about it (Center on Religion & Politics and Digitalis Reputation, July 2016)

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