How Should Social Media Deal with Extremism?

February 3, 2015

Social media has always been about the open exchange of information and ideas in virtual networks and communities. Social media is used to bring people together from disparate areas with common interests in an exchange of information. By bringing people together and creating communities, social media has served to improve our ability to communicate and our ability to access many sources of information. But it has brought with it negative consequences.
In recent months, social media has gained a lot of attention due in large part to the rise of the religious extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) and the recent attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. ISIS has been using social media to recruit members from Western countries, while in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, social media has been the battleground of choice for people to express a wide variety of views. These events, among others, have sparked conversations about the purpose and control of social media.
The question then becomes what happens when social media is used to generate and promote objectionable and hate-fueled ideas and beliefs? Then what happens when organizations, such as ISIS, take these objectionable beliefs one-step further and use social media in order to recruit members to engage in violent terrorist activities?
One option could be to let the companies operating social media networks to internally police their users. J.M. Berger of the Brookings Institute notes that until last fall Twitter “took an extremely permissive approach to the question of what content it would permit.” However, shortly before ISIS distributed the tragic beheading of journalist James Foley, Twitter began to crack down on ISIS users suspending thousands of their members’ Twitter accounts. 18,000 Twitter accounts related to ISIS were suspended during the fall of 2014 and early 2015. While this is a start, Mr. Berger’s analysis has found that during late 2014 there were at least 45,000 Twitter accounts associated with ISIS.
While Mr. Berger does admit that this approach has some benefits, he suggests that it is lacking in several areas: transparency, consistency, scope, and authority. First, we need to have a clear understanding of what behavior would get a user suspended from their social media platform. Next, we need consistent application of these standards. Third, understanding how widely we want these standards applied (To terrorist activities? To state sponsored disinformation campaigns? To local bullying and harassment? Or all three or more?). Last, if we went this route, there would be no single authority to oversee the application of these standards.
A second option could be to take a country-by-country approach to social media problems. This would allow countries with widely different laws and values to make individualized judgments about what content was appropriate for their social media users. China has notoriously taking to censoring social media content it finds objectionable. Notably with the recent protests in Hong Kong. Recently, Facebook has locally blocked anti-Islamic webpages in Turkey rather than being banned in that country. However, research suggests that this approach often leads to violations of expression and privacy.
Fresh off of testifying at Congressional Hearing entitled “The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media,” Rebecca MacKinnon suggests a third, multi-step approach. To begin with, Ms. MacKinnon suggests that policymaking should begin with many stakeholders including members of industry, civil society, the technical community, and interested governments. Next, the policies should that come out of this multi-stakeholder process should “undergo a human rights risk assessment process to identify potential negative repercussions for freedom of expression, assembly and privacy.” Additionally, these policies should limit social media platforms’ liability in order to ensure an open and free internet. Finally, Ms. MacKinnon suggests that once these policies are in place, there should be “accessible channels for grievance and remedy for people whose rights to free expression, assembly, and privacy have been violated.”
Confronting extremism on social media presents a large international challenge. Handling it will not be easy or come with a quick solution. But it is an issue that must be dealt with sooner rather than later.