“We’re stepping up our efforts to discredit ISIL’s propaganda, especially online,” President Barack Obama told delegates at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last month. The social media counter-offensive comes amid U.N. reports of a 70 percent increase in what it terms “foreign terrorist fighters” — citizens of U.N. member states who have left to join Islamic State and other militant groups.
Islamic State has embraced social media as a way to attract supporters around the world, in a move governments and companies have struggled to respond to. The idea of counter narratives and of removing content and closing down social media accounts believed to be linked to Islamic State has become a major international agenda item. But the focus on the group’s use of social networking has opened the door to a range of politicized efforts that appear less likely to diminish Islamic State’s reach than to enable countries to use countering violent extremism measures for their own domestic agenda.
Gauging the effect of censoring content
Studies of Islamic State use of social media by the U.S. government in early 2015 and the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy between September and December 2014 estimate the militant group and its supporters produce between 46,000 and 90,000 posts a day. But, as a 2012 youth-focused workshop by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded, censoring content is ineffective. Such measures are akin to Whack-A-Mole, with accounts replaced as quickly as they are deleted. Supporters of the militant group have also reacted to such efforts by turning to lesser-known video upload services, hijacking trending hashtags to amplify dissemination and even taunting YouTube administrators about the futility of their efforts, according to reports.
Despite this, some governments are seeking to hold social media firms responsible for the monitoring and removal of content. A July meeting of the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee called for Internet platforms to be held liable for hosting or indexing extremist content. And with the so-called right to be forgotten ruling in the EU, Internet and telecommunications intermediaries are increasingly being called on to act as editors of the Web, as CPJ’s report “Balancing Act: Press Freedom at Risk as EU Struggles to Match Action with Values,” found.
Intermediary liability threatens innovation and free expression by placing the burden of monitoring content on neutral third party hosts, which is why CPJ supports reforms contained in the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, a set of recommended best practices prepared in coalition with leading press freedom and technology policy organizations and individuals.
Last month, rights groups helped defeat a draft provision in a U.S. Senate appropriations bill that would have obligated Internet companies and other electronic communication services to report undefined “terrorist activity,” a term that, by not being defined, risks overbroad compliance.
“[Islamic State] use of social media is unprecedented, so [the Obama administration] is floundering around, flailing around trying to find an appropriate response,” Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the non-profit media monitoring group and former coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, told me.
The necessity of judicial oversight or due process
But it’s not just the Obama administration. The glorification of terrorist acts and the online recruitment of followers has come under renewed focus since the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria and Iraq, and the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France in January, which killed 12 people. In the past year, several governments have moved to restrict or monitor online use under the guise of counter-terrorism measures:
- In August 2014, China blocked popular messaging apps over claims that they could be used for terrorism, according to South Korean authorities.
- At a CVE working group meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Beijing in November 2014, Turkey’s remarks focused on the need to remove illegal content. (Turkey, as CPJ has previously documented, uses anti-terrorism measures to block access to networks such as Twitter and charge journalists over social media posts.)
- Balkan states agreed in March to joint efforts related to “monitoring and removing Internet content that promotes terrorism and violence… as fast as possible.”
- In May, the Council of Arab Information Ministers adopted a proposal by the UAE, a key partner in U.S. counter-propaganda efforts, to limit media coverage of “extremist religious rhetoric.”
- In July, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, launched its Internet Referral Unit “to combat terrorist propaganda and related violent extremist activities on the Internet.”
Allowing ill-defined “extremist” content to be removed without judicial oversight or due process can too easily be used by states interested in limiting independent reporting and staving off public policy debates.
Removal of Twitter accounts for instance, has been found to limit but not eliminate the scope of Islamic State social media activities, according to the Brookings study. But whether this has any impact on broader objectives, such a preventing recruitment or funding, is up for debate. The Brookings study found that removing an account makes it harder to access a group’s social network, but it also has an isolation effect that could “increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who do manage to enter the network.”
Such moves also remove information that journalists and intelligence agencies alike rely on. The basic role of the media is to provide information and often the events depicted in content disseminated by groups such as Islamic State or Boko Haram is newsworthy. Vaguely worded counter-terrorism laws and measures can also be easily manipulated or encourage self-censorship among journalists who are uncertain of where to draw the line.
The Global Network Initiative, an alliance of tech firms and civil society groups of which CPJ is a founding member, has noted concerns over approaches including blocking material without a court order, requiring companies to proactively notify governments of potential “terrorist” content and pressuring these companies to change their terms of service to guarantee removal of content or accounts.
“Terrorist activity is a notion that potentially covers a broad array of speech and conduct. It also puts the burden on communications providers, who are private actors, to define what is terrorist activity and what is not,” Judith Lichtenberg, the network’s executive director, told me. “It is both wrong in principal and difficult in practice for companies to be given this responsibility.”
Putting such subjective decisions in the hands of a corporate actor without giving them sufficient guidance, and without providing oversight or requiring transparency, risks privatizing censorship and infringing on protected speech. Facebook, for example, has no clear definition of terrorism. Facebook’s head of public policy for Central and Eastern Europe, Gabriella Cseh, says designation is based on whether a group includes violence as a way to achieve its mission. No one can support or praise a terrorist act or organizations or post graphic content, she told me. “If they say [Islamic State] members are heroes we will remove that content and that will trigger account removal.”
Do we need a universal definition of terrorism?
But would a universal definition of terrorism or another U.N. resolution really help? At an OSCE expert workshop on media freedom and anti-terrorism policies that I attended last week, the challenges of defining terrorism were heard from diplomats and members of civil society who overwhelmingly acknowledged the anti-terrorism agenda often had a deleterious effect on human rights and civil liberties.
More than half of the 221 imprisoned journalists in CPJ’s 2014 prison census were jailed on anti-state charges. Reporters who try to cover the activities of state-designated terrorist groups or interview their members are at risk of being accused of helping terrorist groups — three journalists working for VICE News were detained in Turkey in September over such accusations. One of them, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, is still being held. A quick click through the CPJ website shows the impact such laws have on journalists, from the persecution of the Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia, to restrictive laws in Egypt.
“The ‘war against terrorism’ waged over the past 15 years … has shown that restricting human rights in order to combat terrorism is a serious mistake and an ineffective measure which can even help terrorists’ cause,” Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks noted. In remarks published on the council’s website in March, Muiznieks expressed concern at extrajudicial website blocking in France and surveillance proposals in Europe.
Georgia Holmer, an expert on countering violent extremism at the U.S. Institute for Peace, told me she is concerned at the ramifications of such policies. She said, “What worries me is when we export some of these tools to countries that don’t have robust democracies or robust checks and balances or reform measures in place, is we are actually doing more harm than good. What type of blank check are you writing?”
CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney C. Radsch, PhD, is a journalist, researcher and free expression advocate. She previously worked for UNESCO’s Section for Freedom of Expression and as senior program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, where she led advocacy missions to more than a dozen countries. She has also worked for Al-Arabiya in Dubai, the Daily Star in Lebanon and The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @courtneyr.
A version of this post originally appeared on CPJ’s website. The Committee to Protect Journalists is a New York-based, independent, non-profit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. You can learn more at CPJ.org or follow the CPJ on Twitter @pressfreedom or on Facebook here.