When social media meets terrorism

WATCHING: Social media platforms are working together to remove terror-related content, but there are calls for them to act faster than they currently do.
WATCHING: Social media platforms are working together to remove terror-related content, but there are calls for them to act faster than they currently do.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the opening day of the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Israel. Speakers included academics, politicians, ambassadors, UN representatives, London police and more. All talking about terrorism in our modern world and ways of quelling it. 

Israel, in their owns words, “lives in a tough neighbourhood”, so they’ve been focusing on the safety of their people and thwarting terror attacks for some time.

The rest of the world had to start paying closer attention after September 11, the Bali bombings, the London Tube bombings, Madrid, the Lindt siege; the list goes on.

One of the themes of the summit was “it takes a network to bring down a network”, highlighting the necessity of working together to better respond to this horror that is pervading our way of life.

The big social media networks were constantly asked by presenters to become a better weapon in the fight. 

Behemoths such as Facebook, Google and YouTube are free to join and use and as such, are accessed by an astronomical number of people each day.

It is no wonder that they are such attractive outlets to spread terrorist propaganda – their reach and ease of use is breath-taking.   

A speaker at the summit, Brian Fishman - lead policy manager for counter-terrorism at Facebook - boasted that the company has 150 staff dedicated to countering terrorism. The team includes academics, former intelligence analysts and legal experts. They speak almost 30 languages.

However, with over two billion Facebook users worldwide and with posts in over 80 languages, that still leaves a few gaps to fill. 

Facebook employs around 17,000 people globally; 150 to monitor the evils of terrorism almost seems a token figure. 

He went on to explain they use artificial intelligence to support this team with techniques such as photo matching, encryption technology and word associations.

The Big Five (Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram) also engage in data sharing to reduce the resources needed to monitor terror content flow on each platform. Sharing the digital footprints of extremist content is a huge leap forward.

But Fishman admitted things still slip under the radar and the companies’ reluctance to share information with law enforcement agencies both protects and potentially harms its users.   

I did a search online and found videos on ways to make a bomb and ideas on how to destroy Israel.

Don’t be naive, these videos aren’t science experiments – their purpose is to cause harm. I’m probably now on the radar of ASIO and the CIA, but the point is, the social media safety net has holes.

It’s not stopping the terror leader with 50,000-plus followers from posting messages advocating radicalisation. It’s not stopping the upload of militant propaganda. 

Their approach seems to be cure rather than prevention.  And terrorism is a hard disease to predict.

But Israel, despite not getting along great with the neighbours, do a better job at protecting their people from terrorism than many European countries are at present. It hasn’t been stopped, but it can certainly be minimised.

Globally we provide more and more to these companies in the form of lucrative data mining, it seems only fair they provide more than one person for every 13,000,000 users to make our world safer.

Judith Whitfield is a Fairfax journalist.