Could Silicon Valley stop online terrorist recruitment?

By Janine Zacharia | February 13, 2015

Amid a wave of personal-data hackings, President Obama came to Silicon Valley on Friday to plead with technology firms to work with the government on what he called one of the “most serious economic national security challenges that we face as a nation.”

“There’s only one way to defend America from these cyber threats, and that is through government and industry working together, sharing appropriate information as true partners,” the president said at Stanford University.

Obama’s outreach to the private sector regarding protection of our data networks is welcomed and overdue. But there’s another national security challenge on which he needs to collaborate with Silicon Valley: how to stop social media from increasingly becoming a terrorist recruitment and propaganda tool.

Obama mentioned in passing how terrorists use social media to spread “hateful ideologies.” But an industry committed to free expression seems, ironically, reticent to discuss the problem. Tech companies routinely preach about protecting user privacy. But what conversations are social media titans having with the government — or the public — about the role Twitter, YouTube and Facebook play in persuading millennials from Chicago or Brussels to join jihadists?

“They were using Facebook, using pictures of the villa they were living in” in Syria, European Union Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told the Washington Post about how jihadists recruited wanna-be fighters from Belgium. “They tried to advertise it as the ultimate place, with swimming pools and easy living.”

As the Islamic State marched into the Iraqi city of Mosul last summer, the group published almost 40,000 tweets in a single day, according to London’s Telegraph. Twitter suspended more than 1,000 accounts it suspected of terrorist links, the newspaper said. They’ve reportedly since suspended thousands more. Still, with the Islamic State publicizing every hostage’s killing via Twitter, there hardly seems to be a dent in its social media presence.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre prompted France to push for international laws that could make social media companies culpable in hate crimes if they host extremist content. “The big operators, and we know who they are, can no longer close their eyes if they are considered accomplices of what they host,” French President Francois Hollande said.

If it was hailed during the 2011 Arab revolutions as a key to democratic change, today social media is being tarnished as a terrorist tool. “We condemn the brainwashing and recruiting of children through the use of social media,” Zarine Khan said last month outside a Chicago courthouse, where her 19-year-old son had just been charged with trying to join the Islamic State

Social media companies don’t seem as angst-ridden. Any public engagement on this subject runs counter to their core argument that they’re simply a platform, not ultimately responsible for the content. They generally seem much more concerned about a patchwork of restrictions around the globe that make it difficult for them to operate, and about government pressure to share private user data.

They are also, understandably, overwhelmed. With 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it would be impossible to prescreen every upload without jeopardizing the “flourishing platform,” Google UK policy manager Verity Harding said last month. Instead, YouTube, like the others, relies on users to flag videos that violate its terms of service.

De Kerchove, however, noted how ineffective the user-flagging system is in removing posts, compared with content flagged by law enforcement: When Britain’s Scotland Yard told Google about material that didn’t comply with its own company guidelines, it removed 93 percent of it. “But when individuals flag up problems, only a third of it is taken down,” he told European parliamentarians, the Guardian reported.

Facebook says it makes it easy for people to notify the company of violations and employs people to review flagged content 24 hours a day, in 12 languages. “The landscape is always evolving as new groups emerge, so we have specialists within our company who stay on top of the issue,” Debbie Frost, Facebook’s vice president for international communications and public policy, told me. “We engage regularly with experts and follow world events closely.”

“We do not permit terrorist groups to use our site for any purpose, and we also remove any comments — posted by anyone — that praise or support terrorist groups or their actions,” Frost said. “If people see such content on Facebook, we urge them to report it to us so that our expert teams can investigate and take the necessary action quickly. We have a dedicated and highly trained team who are constantly working to improve our systems to keep bad actors off of Facebook.”

Beyond the national security risks, there’s the reputation-related one. In late January, social media took a beating in a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on the role it plays in increasing recruitment of Westerners to jihad.

“Permitting U.S. commercial interests to simply ignore vital national security concerns and earn profits from consciously providing high-tech services to banned terrorist organizations is not an acceptable legal framework in the 21st century,” Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert, told the congressmen. There have been “fundamental failures”’ in Twitter’s “responsibility to prevent its service from becoming a mouthpiece for terrorist organizations.”

It would be inane to simply blame social media companies for our current terrorism recruitment problem. The Islamic State would still have plenty of takers without hashtagged jihadist rhetoric and videos of radical Islamic clerics that load in seconds on a smartphone. But there seems to be a consensus forming among experts that more young people, especially from the West, are being lured into jihad than when terrorist organizations relied solely on password-protected, Arabic-language websites.

All the social media company arguments have some validity. But do these extraordinary media companies really want to be ISIS’ or al Qaeda’s propaganda arm? Concerns about protecting personal data and business interests are crowding out any serious discussion of the responsibilities of the most important media companies on the planet.

“As extremists have hijacked and weaponized social media platforms, we are at a moment of collision between the good and thoughtful people who seek an unfettered and uninhibited right to speech through social media and similarly good and thoughtful people who seek to protect us from those who use social media platforms as an essential tool of terror,” said Mark Wallace, head of a nonpartisan international policy group, summing up the battle between government and tech companies for the congressional panel.

What’s needed is “a more coordinated and cooperative relationship between technology companies like Twitter and those of us who want to stop extremists from anonymously abusing social media platforms to expand their power,” Wallace added.

No matter how much it violates the social media companies’ libertarian leanings — when it comes to terrorism — this kind of coordination is necessary. Otherwise, the companies’ responses will likely continue to be ad hoc and imperfect.

Beyond closer collaboration with Washington, technology firms could crowdsource solutions. They can jointly design technological solutions to prevent removed offenders from sprouting up again. They can ask government intelligence agencies for more help in identifying the most pressing terrorist threats. They can log how much terrorism-related material they’re removing to establish a metric to judge progress. There aren’t easy answers. But if there’s a dominant ethos here, it’s that Silicon Valley can fix anything.